U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., says he will introduce a bill today to eliminate illegal, abusive training practices for Tennessee walking horses - and he hopes to bridge a divide between a widely supported set of existing House and Senate bills and the $3.2 billion industry.
Alexander's bill would be a companion to a House bill introduced in February by U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. Alexander hopes to expand on that bill, add a new layer of protection for horses and increase accountability for horse inspectors.
The industry has widely supported Blackburn's bill because, among other things, it doesn't call for abolishing the use of padded shoes and chains that train horses to walk with an exaggerated, higher gait -- or "Big Lick."
But the bill has earned no love from supporters of a pair of competing bills, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Acts, which aim at eliminating the training devices altogether. They say the devices are just a part of soring -- the practice of cutting or injecting acids into a horse's ankles or hooves to produce a higher step through pain.
There's no question for Alexander: Soring must stop. But he says the PAST Acts -- H.B. 1518 and S. 1406 -- place unnecessary restrictions on trainers, owners and show organizers and would eliminate some classes of competitions. And, soring is already illegal.
"Already in the federal regulation are very specific limits on devices that can be put on a horse's legs. None of these can weigh more than 6 oz., a little more that a wristwatch," Alexander said. "What we are trying to do is require the riders to follow the law and follow the regulations, and if they do, there shouldn't be any illegal practices."
Keith Dane, vice president of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States, doesn't agree.
"You can't get rid of soring until you get rid of those devices, because they are being used as part of the soring process," he said.
Both PAST bills increase penalties for breeders and trainers who are found to have sored their horses and prohibit chains, padded shoes and other devices. They have the support of the Humane Society of the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Association and more than 300 co-sponsors in the House and Senate -- only three of whom are from Tennessee or Kentucky.
As proposed, Blackburn's bill would create a single horse inspection board of up to nine members, with four members appointed by agriculture commissioners from Tennessee and Kentucky. The bill calls for the board to create a policy to prevent trainers, owners and organizers from sitting on the board. The bill would also require blood tests, chemical swabs or other scientific tests to see if horses are being sored, instead of subjective visual inspections.
Blackburn's bill has support from the industry and 11 House co-sponsors -- eight of them from Tennessee or Kentucky.
Alexander will introduce his bill with support from U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Alexander takes all that a few steps further. He says the board should have to contract with a qualified equine veterinarian to advise on soring testing methods and certify results. And the members should have term limits.
In addition to current penalties, Alexander says horses that are found to have been sored should be immediately suspended from competition. The first offense would be 30 days. Subsequent offenses would be 90 days.
Jeffrey Howard, a board member for the Performance Show Horse Association, says the industry would welcome more accountable oversight, objective testing and veterinarian involvement. He says few trainers actually use soring techniques, and the few give the many a bad name.
"Just for perceptions. We need objective, scientific proof that the horse has not been sored," Howard said.
He added that the Walking Horse industry has a $3.2 billion economic impact, and that could grow if soring could be knocked out for good.
Blackburn said in a prepared statement Monday that she welcomed Alexander's input.
But U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who sponsored the House PAST Act bill, said in a statement Monday he wasn't in favor of backing off restrictions.
"Any legislation that does not ban stacks and chains; does not eliminate the failed self-policing inspection system; does not increase criminal penalties to provide a truly effective deterrent; and does not strengthen the USDA's ability to enforce the Horse Protection Act, will not work," he said.
Dane also doesn't foresee the Humane Society changing its allegiance.
"We've got what we think is a solution to the problem with the [PAST Act] bill," he said. "There's no point in going to an alternative legislation when we already have one that we think works."
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com or 423-757-6481.