Another Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration has come and gone, but not without delivering some home truths to the "big lick" faction of the walking horse industry. Soring violations were rampant, with U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors disqualifying more than 40 percent of the big lick horses they inspected at the Shelbyville, Tenn., event. Add to that the nearly empty stands and sparsely populated classes, this group should be seriously reconsidering its desperate devotion to the cruel spectacle that's given the walking horse breed a black eye for decades. It's clear that members of the public are rejecting the abuse and corruption that have become the hallmarks of the big lick show circuit.
We urge Congress to do the same and pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (H.R. 1518/S. 1406).
The Celebration and some outspoken voices in this small segment of the industry have tried to gloss over the abuse behind the big lick, but they're not fooling many. Trainers continue to use caustic chemicals, chains and other painful devices to force horses to perform the artificial high-step of the big lick, and this abusive practice, known as soring, is widespread in the industry. Overall, USDA and industry inspectors issued a combined total of 218 violations among 924 big lick horses inspected at the event, double the number of violations from last year's event. USDA found most of the violations and disqualified many more horses than industry inspectors did. Of the 360 big lick horses inspected by USDA officials, 145 horses (40.28 percent) were disqualified.
USDA's inspection results underscore the fact that industry self-regulation is a sham. In addition, the top 25 trainers in the industry's 2014 Riders Cup award program share among them more than 500 citations for violations of the Horse Protection Act. The worst soring offenders in the industry continue to win money and accolades, but public contempt for this racket has become overwhelming.
Anyone who truly cares about the future of the Tennessee walking horse breed recognizes that there is a dire need for reform. The pathway for turning the industry around and creating a prosperous future is the PAST Act. This legislation is co-sponsored by a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress - a total of 363 U.S. senators and representatives, and endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Horse Council, and hundreds of other veterinary and horse industry groups.
The PAST Act will finally put an end to the corrupt, ineffective industry scheme of self-regulation, ban the high-heeled "stacks" and chains that are an integral part of the soring process, and strengthen penalties for violations of the law. It will optimize USDA's enforcement of current federal law at no additional cost. With these reforms in place, horsemen who humanely train their walking horses will finally have the level playing field they deserve, and the breed will end its association with horse abuse.
Incredibly, there are still a few members of Congress who don't get it, including most of Tennessee's delegation. They're buying into the disingenuous promises of reform from an industry that has for decades denied that there is a problem. But the big lick faction has had an abundance of time and chances to crack down on abusers, and its credibility has been blown. They've proven that left to their own devices, they'll keep soring horses, rewarding horse abusers with ribbons and prizes, and giving repeat offenders nothing more than a slap on the wrist. This is what's breaking the Tennessee walking horse industry and destroying the breed's reputation. The PAST Act can restore it.
A horse show circuit based on abuse and corruption will inevitably crumble, and we're seeing the end of public support for the big lick. The PAST Act will save the Tennessee walking horse breed and give the vast majority of its fans something to celebrate. Congressional leaders must recognize the broad, bipartisan call for the PAST Act, and bring it to a vote.
Keith Dane is vice president of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States.