APHIS to resubmit horse soring rule

National Academies report says only veterinarians should inspect horses

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in December announced it is withdrawing a proposed regulation concerning detecting soring in certain performance horses in light of a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The Dec. 13, 2021, Federal Register notice stated the proposed amendment to the Horse Protection Act does not sufficiently address the National Academies review of methods for detecting soreness in horses. Moreover, the proposal is more than five years old, and APHIS says it would likely need to update the underlying data and analyses supporting the proposed change. The report emphasized that veterinarians should be the only ones to diagnose pain in these performance horses and, thus, conduct the inspections for soring.

“Therefore, for these reasons, we are withdrawing the July 26, 2016, proposed rule … and will issue a new proposed rule that incorporates more recent findings and recommendations, including the NAS report,” the agency stated. “The new rulemaking process will allow the public to comment on these and other important issues before the rule is finalized.”

In the past

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, according to the AVMA. Other gaited breeds, such as Racking Horses, Spotted Saddle Horses Rocky Mountain Horses and Missouri Fox-Trotters, may also suffer from soring.

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

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

NASEM report cover: A Review of Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses

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.

Noncompliance with the Horse Protection Act continues to occur, even as recently as the 83rd annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the biggest event for these horses, which occurred Aug. 27 through Sept. 4, 2021, in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Out of 582 horses inspected by designated qualified persons, 53 were found HPA noncompliant. Out of 135 horses inspected by USDA veterinary medical officers, 39 were found HPA noncompliant.

In 2016, APHIS sought to crack down on violators by proposing changes to enhance inspections and strengthen enforcement at shows covered by the HPA. As the agency continued its deliberations on a final rule, APHIS and the Tennessee Walking Horse industry requested that the National Academies oversee an independent study to help ensure that HPA inspection protocols for compliance with the scar rule are based on sound scientific principles that can be applied with consistency and objectivity.

Suggested changes

Dr. Jerry Black, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biological Sciences, chaired the Committee to Review Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses that put together the report, which largely comprised other noted equine veterinarians. The report, published in January 2021, contained several science-based recommendations regarding revisions to APHIS’ Horse Protection Act program and associated regulations.

According to the report, differences in training and experience account for the discrepancies between inspections done by APHIS veterinarians and designated qualified persons, who are mostly nonveterinarians licensed by horse industry organizations that host shows.

The report recommends inspections only be administered by veterinarians, bringing back the use of thermography, and researching the potential use of facial expressions—or a grimace scale—for pain assessment purposes. If budget constraints necessitate the use of third-party inspectors, they should be trained by APHIS, evaluated, and screened for conflicts of interest. The report also recommends specific information and methods that inspectors should learn in their training.

Dr. Susan White, a committee member and professor emeritus of large animal medicine at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, spoke during a Jan. 13, 2021, briefing on the report. She said that the existing law should be better adhered to as the “inspection process was so variable and, in many instances, did not follow the rules and regulations that exist now.”

The report also advises that the scar rule should be revised and based on what can be accurately assessed by a gross examination during an inspection.

Dr. Pamela E. Ginn, a committee member and an associate professor and senior pathologist in the Department of Comparative Diagnostic and Population Medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, also spoke at the briefing. She said the language for the scar rule is outdated, and for the rule to be legally binding and defensible, it has to be updated.

Finally, the decision to disqualify a horse from a show should also be driven by an experienced veterinarian, such as a veterinary medical officer, according to the report. This decision should be made on the basis of not only a diagnosis of local pain where a horse is touched but also a thorough assessment of the horse’s gait and other signs such as excessive restlessness, weight shifting, or pointing a front limb.

Dr. Sarah le Jeune, another committee member and chief of the Equine Integrative Sports Medicine Service at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, added at the briefing, “What we’re looking at is improving animal welfare— and, in this case, equine welfare—and that the diagnosis of pain really is something that should be driven by veterinarians, and hopefully this report will put it back into that direction.”

Read the National Academies report, “A Review of Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses.”

A version of this article appears in the Feb. 1, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.