USDA proposes updates to strengthen Horse Protection Act

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is seeking public comments on a proposed rule to strengthen Horse Protection Act (HPA) requirements. The proposed changes intend to eliminate soring, the unethical and illegal practice of deliberately inflicting pain to exaggerate the leg motion of horses to gain an unfair advantage. Public comment is open until October 20. So far, more than 8,300 comments have been submitted.

The HPA prohibits sored horses from participating in shows, exhibitions, sales, or auctions. The HPA also bans the transportation of sored horses to or from these events.

The Horse Protection Act of 1970 (HPA) made soring illegal, but it still continues to occur.
Soring is a violation of federal law. The Horse Protection Act of 1970 (HPA) made soring illegal, but it still continues to occur. The AVMA condemns the practice of soring.

While soring has been illegal for more than 50 years, the practice continues because some owners and trainers believe it makes horses more successful in walking horse competitions. The naturally high gait of a walking horse is made more exaggerated with improper training methods. These methods may cause the horse to suffer from physical pain, distress, inflammation, or lameness while walking and moving.

Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses, and Spotted Saddle Horses commonly suffer from the practice of soring.

The proposed changes to the HPA are as follows:

  • Relieve horse industry organizations and associations of their regulatory responsibilities.
  • Establish qualifying criteria for people applying to be inspectors as well as processes for denying applications.
  • Allow event management to appoint an APHIS representative to conduct inspections.
  • Prohibit any device, method, practice, or substance that could mask evidence of soring as well as all action devices, nontherapeutic pads and wedges, and substances applied above the hoof.
  • Clarify the “scar rule” by modifying the description of visible changes that indicate soring.
  • Amend record keeping and reporting requirements for management at horse shows, exhibitions, sales, and auctions to increase oversight and prevent previously disqualified individuals from participating in events.

The ban on nontherapeutic pads and wedges as well as artificial extensions would not be effective until 270 days after the final rule takes effect so as to allow the steps needed to reacclimate a Tennessee Walking horse or Racking Horse to walking and performing without them.

APHIS is also seeking additional public comment on potential ways to resolve disputes that arise from a designated qualified person or APHIS inspector determining a horse is sore, including options for doing so before a show takes place.

Cumulatively, APHIS anticipates these changes will allow the agency to screen, train and authorize qualified persons to conduct inspections at horse shows, horse exhibitions, horse sales, and horse auctions to ensure compliance with the HPA, according to an August 16 announcement.

The AVMA and American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) both plan to submit comments reflecting their support and concern regarding details with the proposed rule.

Keith Kleine, director of industry relations at the AAEP, said, “We appreciate USDA APHIS introducing its proposed rule changes that in early review show many promising improvements to help mitigate the abuse of these horses and the intentional infliction of pain to create the exaggerated gait known as the ‘big lick’ in the show ring.”

The AVMA policy “Practice of Soring” endorses the AAEP’s position statement, which condemns the practice. The AVMA also has the policy “Use of Action Devices and Performance Packages for Tennessee Walking Horses,” which supports a ban on the use of these methods.

Previously, APHIS announced proposed changes in 2016 to strengthen regulations and enforcement of the HPA. The agency announced the final rule January 19, 2017, but then withdrew it from public inspection after a memo from the White House ordered that all unpublished rules be sent back to their relevant agencies for review.

APHIS then announced in December 2021 it was withdrawing a proposed regulation on detecting soring in certain performance horses in light of a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The agency published a proposed rule to withdraw the 2017 rule on July 20, which was available for public comment through August 21. Now, the agency is submitting the revised proposed rule to strengthen regulations and modernize APHIS’s approach to the issue of horse soring.

The AVMA has a Soring in Horses FAQ and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has more information online about the Horse Protection Act.