Soring final rule put on hold

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A proposed crackdown on the practice of soring—the deliberate infliction of pain to exaggerate the gait of horses, thereby gaining an unfair advantage in the show ring—has been put on hold.

The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced proposed changes July 26, 2016, to strengthen regulations and enforcement of the Horse Protection Act. The goal was to end soring once and for all by placing APHIS in charge of enforcing the law. The regulations would have eliminated the horse show industry’s self-policing system, reliant on using “designated qualified person” licensing programs, which are sponsored by horse industry organizations. Instead, the new rule would require that inspectors be independent veterinarians and veterinary technicians, with degrees from schools accredited by the AVMA Council on Education or AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities. The new rule also would eliminate action devices, pads, and foreign substances in Tennessee Walking Horses and Racking Horses that may be used to sore or cover up soring but are not currently prohibited. According to reports by the USDA, about 90 percent of the alleged violations documented at Horse Protection Act–covered events from fiscal years 2010-2015 involved horses wearing pads.

A Department of Agriculture veterinarian reviews thermographic images. Thermographic cameras measure the surface temperature of a show horse’s legs to identify abnormalities—and thus, potential soring. (Photos courtesy of R. Anson Eaglin/USDA)

The agency announced the final rule Jan. 13, a week before President Barack Obama left office. To become effective, the rule must be published in the Federal Register, and it was scheduled to appear Jan. 24. A copy of the rule submitted to the Federal Register can be viewed at But on President Donald Trump’s first day in office, the White House issued a memorandum for all unpublished rules to be withdrawn and sent back to the relevant agency for review. The soring ban is one of dozens of proposed rules that have been frozen.

Dr. Harry Werner, a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and current AVMA Animal Welfare Committee member, said both the AAEP and AVMA were disappointed that the proposed changes to the HPA were caught up in the regulatory freeze.

“However, the opportunity to enact the regulations remains, and both associations strongly encourage the current administration to expedite publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register. Doing so will, after 47 years since its original writing, greatly strengthen the HPA to realize its goal of eliminating the cruelty of soring,” he said.

Trump appointed former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as secretary of agriculture on Jan. 18 (see story). If he is confirmed, Dr. Perdue (Georgia ‘71) will be making the decision concerning the new regulation. In the meantime, the decision is in the hands of Michael Young, acting deputy secretary of agriculture. There is no timeline for review of the rule, and the new administration could decide to issue a final rule at any time or withdraw the rule completely. As it stands, the HPA enforcement program will continue to operate under the current regulations.

An exhibitor and her Tennessee Walking Horse compete during a show.

The proposed final rule addresses recommendations made by the USDA Office of Inspector General following an audit of APHIS’ horse protection program, which found the existing industry-led inspection program to be inadequate for ensuring compliance with the HPA. The rule also seeks to address the substantial noncompliance that continues to exist among Tennessee Walking Horses and Racking Horses as well as the relationship between soring in horses and the use of certain prohibited items, such as the use of prohibited action devices alone or in conjunction with prohibited substances.

The regulatory changes largely followed language the AVMA and AAEP jointly submitted to the USDA. The AVMA had sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget within the Executive Office earlier in 2016 urging quick review of a proposed rule to enhance the HPA.

More recently, the two veterinary associations sent a letter dated Jan. 26 to Young, asking that the final rule as written by the USDA be published in the Federal Register. The letter pointed out that, during the 2016 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, USDA veterinary medical officers identified 161 HPA noncompliances, while designated qualified persons found only 29.

The AVMA and AAEP will similarly follow up with the new secretary of agriculture when he is confirmed.

An op-ed on the proposed soring rule, co-authored by the current presidents of the AVMA and AAEP, was submitted to the political website The Hill and published Jan. 27. It is available here.

Related JAVMA content:

USDA proposes new rule to crack down on soring (Sept. 15, 2016)

Change hard to come by (Feb. 15, 2013)

Audit outlines Horse Protection Program deficiencies (Jan. 15, 2011)