APHIS bolsters regulations against horse soring

Final rule that cracks down on loopholes goes into effect February 1, 2025

In an effort to end horse soring at Tennessee Walking Horse shows, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced April 29 that it is strengthening Horse Protection Act (HPA) regulations. A copy of the final rule is available on the agency’s website, and the rule will be published in the Federal Register in the coming weeks. This rule will be effective February 1, 2025.

Soring is the practice of applying a substance or mechanical device to a horse’s forelegs that will create enough pain that the horse will exaggerate its gait to relieve the discomfort. The resulting high-stepping running walk, or “big lick,” is rewarded by horse show judges, although showing a sored horse is illegal.

Tennessee Walking Horses commonly suffer from the practice of soring. Other gaited breeds, such as Racking Horses, Spotted Saddle Horses, Rocky Mountain Horses, and Missouri Fox-Trotters, may also suffer from soring.

Veterinarian examining horse leg tendons
The practice of soring has continued, experts say, because some owners and trainers believe it makes horses more successful in walking horse competitions by exaggerating their naturally high gait. Methods used to sore the horse cause it to suffer from physical pain, distress, inflammation, or lameness while walking and moving.

Although widely condemned as inhumane, soring nevertheless continues despite more than 50 years of enforcement at shows.

“For far too long, some within the Tennessee Walking Horse industry have sored and abused their horses, despite the industry’s inspection process and our own enforcement efforts,” said Jenny Lester-Moffitt, undersecretary for USDA marketing and regulatory programs in a press release. “This abuse must stop. Eliminating this cruel practice will help protect horses competing in these shows and level the playing field for the industry. The independent inspection process should strengthen the competition at these shows and benefit the many owners and trainers who do right by their animals.”

Currently, horse show managers can voluntarily hire USDA-trained lay inspectors, known as designated qualified persons (DQPs), chosen by certain horse industry organizations. APHIS also has its own veterinary medical officers (VMOs) who perform inspections at some venues, but they attend less than half of these events.

The new rule will eliminate industry self-regulation and the role of DQPs as inspectors at horse shows, exhibitions, sales, and auctions. Only APHIS inspectors and independent non-APHIS-employed horse protection inspectors screened, trained, and authorized by APHIS will have inspection authority, starting with the 2025 show season.

Typically, an inspector will palpate the front legs of a horse to see whether the horse reacts in pain and to look for other abnormalities. Among other things, the inspector looks for compliance with the “scar rule,” which means the horse’s legs should show no evidence of scarring that is indicative of soring, such as missing hair, scars, or cuts.

However, now the “scar rule” will be removed from the regulations and replaced with a more accurate description of visible dermatological changes indicative of soring, according to APHIS.

The revised regulations include the following additional changes:

  • Prohibiting any device, method, practice, or substance applied to a horse that can cause or is associated with soring.
  • Prohibiting on Tennessee Walking or Racking Horses all action devices and nontherapeutic pads, artificial toe extensions, and wedges, as well as all substances on the extremities above the hoof, including lubricants.
  • Amending recordkeeping and reporting requirements for management at covered events to better enforce the HPA.

In 2017, APHIS announced and then withdrew the initial HPA final rule from public inspection. To become effective, a rule must be published in the Federal Register. But on the first day when the administration changed, 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 was one of dozens of proposed rules that were frozen.

Following a lawsuit based on that action, the agency withdrew the 2017 rule on October 30, 2023, and published a new proposed rule, receiving 8,787 comments. The new rule builds on information published since the 2017 rule was drafted. Notably, it incorporates lessons and science-based recommendations from the 2021 National Academies of Science review of the inspection program.

AVMA’s policy “Practice of soring” endorses the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ position statement, which condemns the practice and “supports the efforts of APHIS in the application and enforcement of the HPA as outlined in the APHIS Horse Protection Operating Plan and strongly recommends imposing sufficient sanctions to prevent these practices.”

The AVMA and AAEP also have a joint statement that supports a ban on the use of action devices and performance packages in the training and showing of Tennessee Walking Horses.

For more information about Horse Protection Act inspection and enforcement procedures, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s website.