Action against soring intensifies

Legislation introduced to eliminate industry self-regulation
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Screen shots from a Humane Society of the United States’ undercover video show horse trainer Jackie McConnell and stable workers applying caustic chemicals to horses’ pasterns to create an exaggerated gait. (Courtesy of HSUS)

Four congressional members introduced legislation Sept. 14 that would increase civil and criminal penalties for anyone found soring a horse—that is, abusing it to get a “big-lick” gait for competition—and would end the gaited horse industry’s current self-policing program.

The Horse Protection Act Amendments of 2012 (H.R. 6388) also would end the use of soring devices such as chains and nontherapeutic pads and shoes—something the AVMA and American Association of Equine Practitioners have previously called for, among other reforms (see JAVMA, Aug. 1, 2012, page 296).

The proposed amendments to the 40-year-old HPA are sponsored by U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky).

Among its provisions, the legislation would do the following:

  • Prohibit use of action devices on any limb of Tennessee Walking Horses—as well as Spotted Saddle Horses and Racking Horses—at horse shows, exhibitions, sales, or auctions. It would also ban weighted shoes, pads, wedges, hoof bands, and other devices that are not strictly protective or therapeutic in nature.
  • Define “action device” to include any boot, collar, chain, roller, or other device that encircles or is placed on the lower extremity of the leg of a horse.
  • Create a penalty structure that requires horses to be disqualified for increasing periods of time—from 180 days to three years—on the basis of the number of violations.
  • Increase the maximum fine for violations from $3,000 to $5,000 and the maximum prison sentence from one year to three years.
  • Make illegal both the act of soring and the directing of another person to sore a horse.
  • Clarify that the term “management” includes the sponsoring organization and the event manager, making them potentially liable for HPA violations.
  • Allow for permanent disqualification of violators after three or more violations.
  • Require the Department of Agriculture to license, train, assign, and oversee inspectors enforcing the HPA.

Regarding the latter provision, currently these venues can voluntarily hire USDA-trained lay inspectors chosen by horse industry organizations and known as “designated qualified persons.” The USDA also has its own veterinary medical officers who perform inspections at random venues.

Under the new provision, the USDA would be responsible for choosing DQPs for shows, auctions, and other HPA-regulated venues; however, the decision to hire a DQP would still be up to the show, sale, or auction.

In 2011, USDA VMOs and DQPs identified 1,111 violations of the HPA. The DQPs made it to 474 of the 600 to 700 gaited-horse shows held that year, while USDA inspectors attended just 62 of the events but found more than half the violations.

The USDA has already tried to rectify problems with self-policing by requiring mandatory suspension penalties for soring violations as of July 9 (see JAVMA, Aug. 1, 2012, page 297).

At this year’s Celebration show, which took place Aug. 22-Sept. 1 in Shelbyville, Tenn., the USDA VMOs and DQPs inspected 1,849 horses and found 166 violations—an approximate 9 percent violation rate. This rate is slightly lower than the 9.5 percent violation rate from the 2011 Celebration, during which 2,143 horses were inspected and 203 violations were found.

The AVMA issued a response Sept. 13 saying, “Unfortunately, these statistics from the 2012 Celebration reaffirm that soring remains prevalent in the industry more than 40 years after passage of the HPA. A violation rate of close to 10 percent is symptomatic of an industry that continues, decade after decade, to fail in its responsibilities to protect the welfare of these horses.”

Notably, the bipartisan amendments do not seek new money from Congress despite requests from the USDA as well as the AVMA, AAEP, and others.

Funding to enforce the HPA stands at $696,000 annually. In a Feb. 24 letter to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the AVMA and AAEP stated “(the Department) needs additional funding to ensure that adequate enforcement and investigative personnel can be placed in the field, current technology is fully utilized, new technology is pursued as needed, and federal cases are prosecuted in a timely and effective manner.”

The push for change to the HPA became more prominent after the USDA Office of the Inspector General completed an audit in fall 2010 analyzing APHIS’ oversight of the Horse Protection Program (see JAVMA, Jan. 15, 2011, page 143). According to the audit’s executive summary, the OIG found APHIS’ program for inspecting horses for soring inadequate to ensure against animal abuse.

Further bringing the issue of soring into the spotlight, the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video of trainers and others abusing horses and turned over the video to USDA investigators and federal prosecutors. The video later aired May 16 on ABC Nightline. On Sept. 18, the trainer in the video, Jackie McConnell of Collierville, Tenn., was ordered to pay a $75,000 fine and was placed on probation for three years for horse abuse. He must also write a letter on the soring of horses, describing the pain it causes and the long-term effects as well as the type of people who seek out others to sore horses. The letter must also state how widespread the practice of horse soring is.

McConnell’s case is one of eight related to violations of the HPA that have appeared in federal court over the past two years.

He now faces 31 counts of violating Tennessee’s anti-cruelty statute.