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Natalie Jackson-Pritchard shows the horse Champagne Watchout in the World Grand Championship class on the final night of this year's Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, held in Shelbyville, Tenn., on Saturday night. Champagne Watchout was the only flat-shod (wearing no pads) horse to compete in the class.

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Horse soring debate

U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn, both Tennessee Republicans, have introduced legislation they say will protect Tennessee walking horses and the breed's tradition, but opponents say it would continue to shield long-standing abusive practices within the industry.

Tennessee walking horses are known for their pleasant demeanor and naturally smooth, lofty gaits. However, since the 1960s, the breed has garnered national attention over the issue of "soring" — when humans intentionally injure horses' hooves or legs to make them step higher.

Inflicting pain on the lower limbs creates an exaggerated, high-stepping gait known as the "big lick." The artificial movement remains popular among some old-school judges and big-name competitors, particularly in Tennessee and Kentucky.

While lawmakers agree that more needs to be done to stop soring, they differ in their ideas as to how.

Alexander and Blackburn's bill, called the Horse Protection Amendments Act of 2019, would update the Horse Protection Act of 1970 and mirrors a house bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn. The three have supported similar bills in the past aimed at blocking another piece of anti-soring legislation — the PAST (Prevent All Soring Tactics) Act — first introduced in 2014.

As of Friday, Alexander and Blackburn's bill had 11 co-sponsors in the House and four in the Senate — all Republicans from Tennessee, Kentucky or South Carolina. The bipartisan PAST Act has 265 House and 24 Senate co-sponsors.

Soring has been outlawed for more than 50 years, yet "still runs rampant" within sectors of the walking horse industry, said U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon and a sponsor of the PAST Act. Schrader is co-chairman of the Congressional Veterinary Medicine Caucus and one of only three veterinarians currently on the Hill.

"The vast majority of trainers are good people doing the right thing for these horses and competing fairly," Schrader said. "There are a few malcontents that unfortunately seem to have the ear of the industry who are taking advantage of the weakness of the enforcement."

Currently, walking horses competing at recognized shows are inspected for evidence of soring, but loopholes in the law allow inhumane tactics to persist.

To create the "big lick," people rub caustic chemicals, such as kerosene or mustard oil, into the sensitive skin near the hooves and attach chains — which are permitted — around their ankles to further irritate the affected area. Horses may also wear platform-type shoes, providing more elevation to their gait.

Although the use of chemicals is illegal, competitors apply pain-numbing ointments and other coverups to pass inspections. Those masking effects wear off in warmup, in time for horses to still exhibit the "big lick" for judges in the show ring.

Conflicts of interest and inconsistent oversight abound, since inspections are handled by numerous private entities called "horse industry organizations," or HIOs. For example, the largest horse show for the Tennessee walking horse breed — the Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee — has its own HIO.

Both bills would beef up inspections and penalties for soring, as well as eliminate the multiple HIOs.

Alexander and Blackburn's bill would create one HIO, governed by a board, to oversee inspections. The board would be comprised of appointees by the states of Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as industry experts.

A statement from Blackburn said "the creation of a single Horse Industry Organization will establish consistency and improve accountability within the industry" using "common-sense reform to stop the abuse."

Schrader said the bill is problematic, because it doesn't eliminate the problem of self-policing. It also doesn't address stacked shoes or chains.

"I prefer to have industry regulate itself," he said. "The industry is unable — hopefully not unwilling, but certainly unable — to regulate itself. So at that point, you need to have government step in."

In the PAST Act, inspections would be handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the department would be given greater authority to enforce the law. Opponents say this would cause a negative economic impact and increase bureaucracy in an already highly regulated industry.

In a statement Wednesday, Alexander said the Tennessee Walking Horse industry supports more than 20,000 jobs nationwide and pumps $3.2 billion into the nation's economy. In 2018, there were more than 200 shows contributing millions of dollars to local economies. There are more than 260,000 walking horses registered nationwide, including over 58,000 walking horses in Tennessee, and more than 35,000 in Kentucky, according to the statement.

"In baseball, if a player illegally uses steroids you punish the player — you don't shut down America's pastime. We need to punish and stop any trainer, owner or rider who engages in the illegal practice of horse soring — not shut down a treasured and important tradition in both Tennessee and Kentucky," Alexander said.

Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action and a former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors Association, said the Alexander-Blackburn bill is "nothing more than a ruse that would codify the industry's self-policing system and give Tennessee and Kentucky the authority to run every horse show in America that allows a Tennessee Walking Horse to exhibit."

"They speak of preserving tradition, but I believe that the 60-year-old tradition of soring horses to create the 'big lick' is one that should die, just like cockfighting, and dogfighting," Irby said. "The Tennessee walking horse in its natural form is the greatest and most talented breed on earth, and will thrive and flourish like never before once the soring tradition is dead."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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