It's walking horse time in Tennessee. Again.
And once again, we have hopes of bipartisan legislation that promises to end — finally — the inhumane practice of horse soring, which became illegal in 1970 but persists due to loopholes in the current law.
This legislation — known as the PAST Act originally introduced seven years ago in 2013 — has always had phenomenal support. This year it has 345 co-sponsors across both chambers of Congress, yet its passage in the House on Thursday marked its first-ever vote, and the bill's supporters fear it faces continuing opposition in the Senate. More on this later.
Controversy and cruelty are not new in the Tennessee walking horse world. Here we are nearly 50 years after the first of many scandals and early legislation to clean up the industry were supposed to return Tennessee walking horse time in the Volunteer State to its humble tradition and beauty. The 1970 Horse Protection Act outlawed soring — the practice of applying irritants, blistering agents or painful shoeing to the front feet or forelegs of a horse. Soring makes a horse pick its feet up higher in an exaggerated manner that is now called "the big lick." Soring shortcuts training time and gives trainers and owners an unfair advantage over competitors.
The trouble with the Horse Protection Act was that it was never completely enforced. Overseen by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it has always lacked funding and there were never enough inspectors. In 1976, the law was amended to allow non-USDA employees to be trained and certified as inspectors. Thus the walking horse industry came to police itself. If you're thinking this sounds like an invitation to the fox to guard the hen house, you are correct.
We've seen it unravel in the last 15 years. The USDA was inspecting only about 11% of walking horse shows for signs of soring, and in 2006 when the agency decided to beef-up enforcement at the king of shows — the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville — the crackdown left the multibillion-dollar walking horse industry without a world champion for the first time in the competition's then-68-year history.
Inspectors disqualified all but three horses from what is normally a 20- or 30-horse field — all for signs of soring. The remaining three horses were withdrawn from competition by their trainers after allegations of bribery emerged.
In the next few years, the industry claimed to have cleaned up its act. But in 2012, USDA reported that federal testing in the final days of Shelbyville's 11-day event revealed that 145 horses out of 190, or 76%, tested positive for the prohibited foreign substances used in soring.
That same year, undercover video shown on prime-time television, gave the world a glimpse into the barn and training methods of former Hall of Fame walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell. The video, showing his cruelty to horses, resulted in his eventual guilty plea and federal conviction in a Chattanooga courtroom.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Congress again began trying to strengthen the 1970 Horse Protection Act with amendments to toughen sentences and eliminate pads, chains and other "performance" devices. The "Prevent All Soring Tactics," the PAST Act, was born of that effort. The legislation was stalled in the House until this year by then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. In the Senate, it lanquished thanks to Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. Like Tennessee, Kentucky is a "big-lick" state.
And, yes, those senators still present a roadblock.
"The Tennessee and Kentucky senators remain an obstacle, but we are hopeful that our cosponsor list and vote in the House will demonstrate just how widely and overwhelmingly supported the bill is, and we can use that momentum in the Senate where the bill already has 41 bipartisan supporters," according to a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, who co-sponsored the bill.
In May, Sens. Alexander and Blackburn, both Republicans, introduced their own opposition legislation to end soring: the Horse Protections Amendments Act of 2019, which mirrors a House bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tennessee, and supported by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tennessee. It is perennial legislation, first introduced in 2014 to counter the PAST Act. It would create a new, single horse industry organization (lay inspectors), governed by a board. The board would be comprised of appointees by the states of Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as industry experts. More foxes for the hen house.
USDA had it's own solution that almost became a reality — until Donald Trump became president.
In late 2016, the USDA released new rules to upgrade Horse Protection Act regulations. Those new rules would have banned the devices that help hide horse soring — the grotesque pads and stacks prevalent on walking horses since the 1970s. But not long after Trump's inauguration, an unexplained failure of Federal Register personnel to properly publish the new USDA rule before President Barack Obama's term ended left the new rule vulnerable to a Trump administration decision to put a freeze on all pending rules. The new rules — and help for horses — went to limbo-land. Again.
Tennessee's beautiful walking horses deserve better.