Soring—which involves intentionally inflicting pain on a horse’s hooves and front limbs to produce an exaggerated high-stepping gait known as the Big Lick—remains a persistent and rampant practice in Tennessee walking horse competitions. To end this abuse, lawmakers have reintroduced the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act (S 2295).
Background: Cruel Soring of Tennessee Walking Horses
Congress enacted the Horse Protection Act (HPA) in 1970 to end the abusive practice of soring. Soring methods include applying caustic chemicals, using plastic wrap and tight bandages to “cook” those chemicals deep into the horse's flesh for days, attaching chains to strike against the sore legs, inserting hard objects such as screws and resins into tender areas of the hooves, paring the soles of the feet down to sensitive tissue, and using salicylic acid or other painful substances to slough off scarred tissue in an attempt to disguise the sored areas. Sored horses often live in constant and extreme pain throughout their careers.
Current Law Allows Industry to Police Itself
The US Department of Agriculture has never been provided the resources to enable its inspectors to attend most of the shows. Decades ago, in an attempt to compensate, the USDA set up an industry-run enforcement system in which horse industry organizations (HIOs) were authorized to train their own inspectors, called designated qualified persons (DQPs), to inspect horses for soring at shows. However, DQPs are employees of these show organizations and are often exhibitors of Tennessee walking horses themselves. Not surprisingly, many DQPs avoid citing those who hired them.1
USDA Inspector General and National Academies Recommend Program Overhaul
Though the HPA was signed into law nearly 50 years ago to protect horses from painful soring, this abuse continues unabated. A 2010 audit by the USDA inspector general exposed how trainers in the industry go to great lengths to evade detection rather than comply with federal law and train horses using humane methods.2 The inspector general recommended stiffer penalties and eliminating the flawed system of industry self-policing, as well as increased funding to enable the USDA to more adequately oversee compliance with the law.
Unfortunately, little has changed with HPA enforcement in the intervening years. In 2021, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released a report urging the USDA to discontinue its reliance on industry inspectors, and instead depend on veterinarians to inspect horses for soreness.
Equine Veterinarians and Horse Groups Call for Reforms
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), along with the American Horse Council and several show horse industry groups, all endorse the PAST Act. The AAEP issued a 2008 white paper condemning soring, calling it “one of the most significant welfare issues faced by the equine industry.”3 It called for the abolition of industry-run inspections, saying “the acknowledged conflicts of interest which involve many of them cannot be reasonably resolved, and these individuals should be excluded from the regulatory process,” adding that the “adoption and strict enforcement of meaningful uniform standards and regulations, combined with more stringent penalties, are the cornerstones of establishing fair and humane competitions.”
In a joint statement, the AVMA and the AAEP stated, “For decades we've watched irresponsible individuals become more creative about finding ways to sore horses and circumvent the inspection process, and have lost faith in an industry that seems unwilling and/or unable to police itself.”4
Undercover Investigation and Enforcement Track Record
An undercover investigation of champion Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell and his associates revealed that trainers can sore horses and enter them into shows undetected under the current system, as McConnell did while serving a 5-year federal disqualification. Caught on video painting caustic chemicals on horses' legs, McConnell pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the HPA. The video also showed horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face, and violently cracked across their skulls and legs with heavy wooden sticks. Prosecutors expressed frustration with the weak penalties available under the current HPA.
In another case, trainer Barney Davis pleaded guilty to multiple violations of the HPA and related financial crimes. According to Davis, “Everybody does—I mean, they've got to be sored to walk. I mean, that's the bottom line. It ain't no good way to put it, but that's it.”5 While we applaud these prosecutions, the violators had engaged in soring and gotten past industry inspectors for decades, as have many others. These prosecutions are noteworthy because they are so rare. HIOs claim a 98 percent compliance rate with the HPA.6 USDA inspectors, however, have found the opposite: up to 100 percent of randomly selected horses tested positive for prohibited foreign substances applied to their pasterns, either to cause pain or to mask the symptoms.7 This industry has been allowed to self-police for too long, penalties have been too weak to provide a meaningful deterrent even in the rare event someone is caught, and devices known to be associated with soring have been permitted.
The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act would implement needed reforms to end this abuse of horses. The PAST Act would do the following:
- End the failed industry self-policing system. The USDA would train, license, and assign inspectors to horse shows instead of having HIOs choose who conducts inspections. Shows would still have the option of hiring inspectors or declining to do so. Show management who opt out would (as in current law) risk greater liability if soring is uncovered at their show.
- Strengthen penalties. Violators of the law could receive up to three years in prison for core offenses now treated only as misdemeanors. Maximum fines would increase to $5,000 per violation. Periods of disqualification would lengthen with each violation. A third violation could result in permanent disqualification from any horse show, exhibition, sale, or auction.
- Ban the use of devices associated with soring. Chains, weighted shoes, pads, chains, and other devices used on three specified breeds (Tennessee walking horses, spotted saddle horses, or racking horses) to intensify pain and conceal foreign objects would be expressly prohibited.
- Make the actual soring of a horse for the purpose of showing or selling the animal illegal. Directing another to do so would also be illegal.
- Not add costs to the federal government. The PAST Act would enable the USDA to redirect its enforcement efforts and resources in a more efficient and effective way.
1. US Department of Agriculture, Animal Welfare Information Center. (n.d.) Horse Protection Act. Retrieved from https://www.nal.usda.gov/awic/horse-protection-act
2. US Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General. (September 2010). Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administration of the Horse Protection Program and the Slaughter Horse Transport Program (Audit Report 33601-2-KC). Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/33601-02-KC.pdf
3. American Association of Equine Practitioners. (August 2008). Putting the horse first: Veterinary recommendations for ending the soring of Tennessee Walking Horses. Lexington, KY: Author. Retrieved from http://www.aaep.org/custdocs/AAEPWhitePaperonTWHSoring.pdf
4. American Veterinary Medical Association. (November 13, 2013). Pass bill to end the abusive practice of soring, AVMA urges in testimony [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/news/pressroom/pages/Pass-bill-to-end-the-abusive-practice-of-soring-AVMA-urges-in-testimony.aspx
5. United States of America vs. Barney Davis. (February 27, 2012). Judgment Proceedings. Retrieved from http://www.forthetwh.com/Davis Original Sentencing Transcript.pdf
6. Mullins, S. (March 1, 2012). Walking horse industry responds to critical article. Shelbyville Times-Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.t-g.com/story/1821185.html
7. Tennessee Walking Horse Show Will Inspect for Abuse of Horses (August 22, 2012). Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/tennessee-walking-horse-show-inspect-abuse-horses/story?id=17059913