By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Trainers who paint horses’ legs with harsh acids and chemicals that burn through the skin, causing unspeakable pain to the animals, then add heavy shoes and tie chains on top of those wounds to intensify their suffering. Trainers who hit horses with sticks and shove electric prods in their faces to get them to do what they want. Trainers who drag and force horses to stand when they are hurting too much to do so.
A video we are releasing today presents some shocking scenes from the Humane Society of the United States’ undercover investigations of the Tennessee walking horse industry. Above all, it shows the abject cruelty visited upon the animals to get them to perform an artificial, high-stepping gait called the “big lick” at competitions by “soring” the animals.
It is some of the worst animal abuse you will see, but here’s the kicker: it has been allowed to continue for half a century with very little to no accountability for those who break the law.
Even now, as the nation reels under a pandemic, the big lick segment of the industry, after several months of forced shutdowns, is returning to business as usual. Preparations for the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration at an arena in Shelbyville, Tennessee, to be held between August 26 and September 5, appear to be on in full swing, despite a reported increase in coronavirus cases in Bedford County, which is home to Shelbyville.
The only acknowledgement of the coronavirus threat was the organizers noted in their press release that they felt it “prudent to select two alternates for this year’s show in case any of the five initial selections were to fall ill and be forced to quarantine.”
Such callousness is not surprising in an industry that has always put winning ribbons above animal welfare. The Celebration has, in recent years, been little more than a showcase for some of the industry’s worst offenders, and there’s little reason to think that it will be any different this year. In our video, a former big lick trainer says that "without some type of soring, they're not going to do the big lick." What that means, essentially, is that a horse who is not sored would not have a chance of winning at the Celebration or any big lick walking horse event.
What has made it easier for these animal abusers to get away with their misdeeds is the increasingly lax enforcement of the Horse Protection Act by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration. The USDA is charged by Congress with the job of inspecting horses at shows to ensure they have not been sored. But as we have been reporting, the number of citations and enforcement under the law has plummeted in recent years. The USDA has also repeatedly stated that the industry’s self-run inspection programs should be the primary line for enforcing the HPA.
Not surprisingly, those industry groups—riddled with conflicts of interest—rarely if ever cite violations or issue penalties, and even allow participants to keep their prizes and titles if they’re found in violation after their wins. Making matters worse, the rider/trainers of the top three placing horses in the Celebration’s World Grand Championship class last year were all slated to begin federal disqualifications after they were allowed to compete. One doesn’t even begin his USDA-set disqualification until after this year’s Celebration, and another, after the 2022 show.
The administration has taken other steps to facilitate the scofflaws. In 2017, the Trump administration withdrew a federal rule that had broad bipartisan support and was finalized in the last week of the Obama administration. That rule would have ended walking horse industry self-regulation and banned the use of the torture devices that are integral to the soring process. The HSUS and Humane Society Legislative Fund are suing the agency for withdrawing the rule.
Congress remains our only hope now if we are to stop this abuse swiftly, and a sweeping majority there, cutting across party lines, is eager to end soring.
Last year, in a historic vote, the House voted to pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act by an overwhelming margin of 333 to 96. The bill would ban the use of devices integral to the soring process, end the industry’s failed system of self-policing, and significantly increase penalties for violators. Recently, the House Appropriations Committee also voted to double funding for HPA enforcement in FY2021.
The PAST Act has a bipartisan majority of 52 cosponsors in the Senate but it has languished in the upper chamber for months now because some senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are co-sponsoring competing legislation, introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and supported by those engaged in horse soring, which allows the industry to continue policing itself with no accountability and no restriction on the use of soring devices or tougher penalties.
The HSUS and HSLF have long shined the spotlight on soring, and we won’t stop until it’s stamped out for good. As the cruelty on display in our video shows, it is high time for our elected leaders to stop giving cover to those who break the law and bring the PAST Act to a vote on the Senate floor. Please contact your senators to urge them to cosponsor the PAST Act, S. 1007, and do all they can to help secure swift passage of this crucial bill. It’s the only solution now before us to end the gruesome and archaic practice of soring that has caused so much unnecessary suffering for so many horses, all in the name of "entertainment" and for the sake of a ribbon.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.