Walk on by: Lamar Alexander's horse protection bill is not enough

Walk on by: Lamar Alexander's horse protection bill is not enough

April 2nd, 2014 in Opinion Times

Lamar Alexander

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander should know better.

The Tennessee Republican, after years of silence while abuses in Tennessee's walking horse industry continued, has introduced his own horse protection bill as bridge legislation between a proposal that horse show people think is too tough and a third bill written basically to protect the industry from regulation.

Unfortunately, the best one can say about Alexander's well-intentioned bill is that it is naive.

The toughest bill, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (PAST), would stiffen penalties for soring, the practice of using chemicals and objects to make horses lift their feet higher to avoid pain. The PAST Act would also require federal inspection (rather than industry inspectors) at walking horse shows, and ban the use of action devices such as pads and chains. The PAST Act is backed by veterinary groups, the Humane Society of the United States and celebrities such as Priscilla Presley and Alyssa Milano.

The industry favorite is a bill introduced in February by U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. Her bill would create a single horse inspection board (without trainers, owners and show organizers) that would require blood tests, chemical swabs or other "scientific" tests to see if horses are being sored. The bill allows the Walking Horse Trainers' Association to help select the board.

Note: This is the same association whose 2014 seven-member board of directors boasts at least 112 citations for soring and related offenses. One of those board members has 38 known citations for violation of the Horse Protection Act, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Blackburn's bill is a thinly disguised repeat of what hasn't been working to stop the abuse for decades.

And Alexander's bill would do the same thing as Blackburn's, but add veterinary oversight. He says the board should have to contract with a qualified equine veterinarian to advise on soring testing methods and certify results. And the board members should have term limits.

Here's why Alexander's added layer also won't work: This has already been tried, and the abuses continue to occur. Walking horses and walking horse owners and trainers employ and pay a lot of veterinarians, right? In fact, the president of SHOW, the largest horse industry group that in recent years has handled the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., also is a licensed member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Equine Practitioners. In other words, a vet.

For years, the fox has watched the hen house in the Tennessee walking horse industry. The boards went by different names but they were all horse industry groups, called HIOs, for short. They were inspector groups that were trained, certified and overseen by U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians.

The USDA is charged with enforcing the 40-year-old Horse Protection Act. The trouble is, the USDA could only get to a handful of the horse shows. That's where the HIOs came in -- they, in theory, were supposed to be an arm of the USDA.

But the HIOs mostly turned a blind eye to problems, and at show after show where the USDA did provide oversight, horses that had been passed by lay inspectors were found to be sored by USDA vets.

As for pads and chains? They don't just help hide the abuse -- they amplify it. The pads (think marathon running in high heels) are new to walking horses in recent decades. The original Tennessee walkers of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s didn't wear pads.

This is an industry that needs to find its way back home. The pads and the abuse are turning people away in droves. Attendance at the shows is way down. On Feb. 21, the Shelbyville Times-Gazette ran a story quoting Mike Inman, CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, saying that the cost of most seats at the 2014 11-day show that begins in August has been cut to less than half the customary price. Boxes with six seats that normally cost $575 will run $200 this year. And better boxes that normally cost $625 will be discounted to $500.

The move -- along with allowing alcohol to be sold and consumed anywhere in the stadium, last year and this year -- is aimed toward "providing a great value for families and groups but also to draw more people," the newspaper paraphrased Inman as saying.

The toughest legislation -- the PAST Act -- has enough cosigners to ensure its passage. All Blackburn and Alexander are doing is serving to slow support for a new day and the cleaner, kinder display of a beautiful Tennessee icon.