The U.S. House on Thursday approved a bill proponents say will better protect Tennessee walking horses and related breeds from the cruel practice of soring, when humans intentionally inflict pain on the animals to force an exaggerated step known as the "big lick."
Although soring was outlawed in 1970, loopholes in the current law allow the practice to persist. Some judges continue rewarding the "big lick" in competitions, particularly in areas of Tennessee and Kentucky.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said the practice is "beyond reprehensible" and applauded Thursday's vote.
"How we treat animals is a reflection of our national character," he said in a statement.
How they voted
Tennessee YEASTim Burchett (R)Jim Cooper (D)Steve Cohen (D)Tennessee NAYSDavid "Phil" Roe (R)Charles "Chuck" Fleischmann (R)Scott DesJarlais (R)John Rose (R)Mark Green (R)David Kustoff (R)
The bill establishes a new system for inspecting horses and increases penalties for violations. In addition, it would ban the use of devices and shoes that artificially alter a horse's gait.
Proponents of the PAST Act say the devices cause pain and sometimes irreparable damage to a horse's body, especially when used on young animals for extended periods of time. Opponents say the devices and shoes in question are harmless, but research supporting these claims is minimal or outdated.
The U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act passed with 333-96 in favor. Only three representatives from Tennessee voted for the measure, including Cohen; Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat; and Rep. Tim Burchett, a Republican.
Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., voted against the measure. Four other House Republicans from Tennessee also voted against the measure.
U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in a statement thanked the bill's co-sponsor, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, "for being a champion of animal welfare issues and building on the legacy of my late friend, Senator Tydings." He also urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to "take up this bipartisan legislation without delay."
The bill will face an uphill battle in the Senate, where it's expected to encounter stiff opposition from Tennessee's U.S. senators - Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Lamar Alexander - who say the PAST Act will damage tradition and agricultural business in the state.
Despite the PAST Act's uncertain future, supporters and animal wellness advocates celebrated Thursday's vote.
"We applaud the House for overwhelmingly passing the PAST Act to end barbaric and indefensible practices that stained the horse show world for decades," said Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association. "Today's landslide vote is a powerful signal to the Senate that it should saddle up and end this cruelty to horses once and for all."
Kitty Block, the Humane Society of the United States president and CEO, said in a statement that the group has worked hard to conduct undercover investigations, raise public awareness, secure greater funding and more support for enhanced enforcement by USDA.
"We're going straight ahead to press for Senate passage of the PAST Act," she said. "These animals have suffered long enough."
Mike Inman, CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration show, said walking horse competitions are already heavily regulated, and the new law would hurt the industry.
DesJarlais echoed those concerns in an emailed statement following Thursday's vote.
"I've offered better legislation that reflects today's reality, an industry that has reformed and protects these beautiful animals," he said. "We can't let a few bad actors, or radical groups, end this family enjoyment and vital economic resource for rural Tennesseans."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.