By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Just weeks after the historic passage of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693, in the U.S. House of Representatives, we’re opening up another front in our fight against horse “soring.” Today the Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Humane Society of the United States filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seeking to compel the agency to reinstate a final rule that was duly issued, prescribed and promulgated in 2017, but withdrawn with the advent of a new administration. The final rule amended regulations under the Horse Protection Act (HPA) that have allowed soring to fester for the entire 49 years since the Act’s passage.
The lawsuit argues that by withdrawing the final rule, the USDA not only violated the legal requirements of rulemaking, but also violated its mandate under the HPA. The lawsuit was filed by pro bono counsel at the law firm Latham & Watkins, LLP and the HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation team. Several individual plaintiffs also joined the HSUS and HSLF in the lawsuit.
It’s been a federal crime since 1970 to show horses who have been sored—subjected to the intentional infliction of pain on their legs and hooves to force them to step higher to gain a competitive edge in the show ring. But trainers in the Tennessee walking, spotted saddle and racking horse breeds have taken advantage of inadequate regulations that have allowed soring to continue unabated. The existing regulations allow chains to be hung around horses’ legs and tall, heavy platform shoes or “stacks” to be nailed to horses’ hooves. These devices—which exacerbate the pain of caustic chemicals burned into the horses’ skin and conceal hard or sharp objects jammed into their tender soles—are integral to the soring process.
The current regulations also authorize an industry self-policing scheme which has facilitated the perpetuation of soring. In 2010, USDA’s Inspector General released a comprehensive audit of the agency’s Horse Protection Program, concluding that the industry self-policing system—the one authorized by the regulations that would have been replaced by the final rule—was fraught with conflicts of interest, inadequate to prevent soring, and should be abolished. USDA agreed with the Inspector General’s recommendations and said then that it would implement new regulations to remedy the problem. The agency also stated in separate Federal Register notices (in 1979 and 2011) that if soring persisted, it would consider banning the stacks and chains used to facilitate the practice.
With the final rule, the agency at long last took the actions necessary to move toward fulfilling its obligations under the HPA. On Jan. 13, 2017, USDA put out a press release announcing the final rule and sent the rule to the Office of the Federal Register where it was put on public inspection and scheduled for publication. However, the rule was withdrawn a few days later by the new administration without following any of the procedures mandated by law to repeal a duly issued, prescribed and promulgated final rule; agency officials have since placed the final rule on “inactive” status and have resisted efforts to move forward on it.
With today’s legal action we are making clear that we intend to hold the federal government accountable for complying with its statutory obligations under the Horse Protection Act to end the cruelty of soring. Our action also puts horse sorers on notice that we will not stop in our efforts to halt the cruelty they inflict on horses.
Our commitment to end soring is a lasting one. We’ve investigated the practice for decades, bringing forth evidence that has deepened public awareness and outrage over soring and resulted in cruelty convictions for trainers. Most recently, we helped persuade the Nashville Metro Council to unanimously approve a resolution urging Tennessee’s U.S. Senators to cosponsor the PAST Act and work to get it enacted, a strong sign that there’s little tolerance left for soring in Tennessee.
This has been a hard fight over the years because, believe it or not, soring has powerful defenders. But we’ve never given up, and we’ve never been closer to securing its abolition than we are now. The lawsuit and our ongoing advocacy to pass the PAST Act seek to deliver justice to the horses who have so long suffered as a result of soring. We’ll keep working to bring down the curtain on this cruel and sinister practice and finish the job our predecessors in humane work started a half century ago.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.