Times editorial: Long overdue rules will restore value to Tennessee Walking horses
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a final rule updating regulations in the Horse Protection Act to officially ban the use of training equipment used by walking horse trainers to force an artificially high gait in their competition animals.
The rule follows recommendations made by the USDA's Office of Inspector General after an audit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's horse protection program, which found the existing inspection program was inadequate to enforce the Horse Protection Act.
The rule bans the use of stacks, pads, chains and other devices designed to achieve a high-stepping "big lick" characteristic of many Tennessee walking horses, according to a news release from the Humane Society of the United States.
Officials with the USDA will also now be allowed to assume responsibility for training, screening and licensing inspectors, thus eliminating the self-policing system of inspection within the industry that was deemed ineffective in the 2010 audit.
When it was introduced in 1970, the Horse Protection Act banned the practice of "soring" to achieve the same high gait when the USDA decided such training was "cruel and inhumane."
"The practice of soring is intended to produce a high-stepping gait through the use of action devices, caustic chemicals, and other practices that cause horses to suffer, or reasonably be expected to suffer physical pain, distress, inflammation, or lameness while walking or moving," reads the agency's website.
Stacks and chains have been used to achieve the same effect, but have become a controversial element of the industry as reformers have argued such equipment can be equally inhumane as soring.
"Horse soring is a stain on Tennessee's reputation, and [Monday's] move by the USDA begins to wipe that stain away," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society. "Hurting horses so severely for mere entertainment is disgraceful, and I put this abuse in the same category as dogfighting or cockfighting — practices that betray our humanity and that cannot stand the light of day."
Local politicians also celebrated the announcement, lauding it as a blow to those who have benefited from the abuse of horses for sport.
"How we treat animals is a direct reflection of our character, both as individuals and a nation," said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, R-Tenn. "Throughout my legislative career, both as a state senator and as a member of Congress, I have worked to raise awareness of and combat inhumane treatment of animals, and horse soring is truly one of the worst practices."
Former Sen. Joe Tydings of Maryland, the father of the Horse Protection Act, also weighed in, saying, "The practice results in docile, trusting horses being tortured day after day, with many effectively crippled for life after their show days."
Over the last several years, Chattanooga has been at the center of controversies surrounding the $1.4 billion industry of Tennessee walking horse competitions.
In 2012, local trainer Jackie McConnell faced a federal 52-count indictment with three other trainers and assistants. McConnell, a former walking horse trainer of the year, was charged with violations of the Horse Protection Act and falsification of records.
Later that year, the Humane Society aired a video on national television which showed McConnell abusing a horse to achieve a high-stepping gait. He ultimately received three years probation and a $75,000 fine.
Not everyone is happy about the new change.
Enthusiasts and horse owners gave comments about the policy on regulations.gov, a website that allows voters to view and debate pending federal legislation.
"I strongly oppose the regulation to do away with pads," wrote Dara Justice of Harriman, Tenn. "No one wants to go to a horse show to see a trail horse. We want to see the beautiful show horse! These padded show horses live better than most people!"
Another man, Jon Dees of Hilbert, Tenn., said he is a veterinarian and is not necessarily opposed to the use of such training equipment.
"The connection of the practices of pads, weights, action bands or chains, stretchies or rubber bands, etc. to 'soring' is simply wrong!" he wrote. "Just because the people who are guilty of 'soring' improperly use these devices does not make the devices bad. It only makes the people bad trainers.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.