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What Is the Horse Protection Act?

This federal law was enacted to end the rampant abuse of Tennessee walking horses, but it needs to be stronger

In response to public outcry about the cruel treatment of Tennessee walking horses for the show ring, Congress passed the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970. The intent of the law was to ban "soring"—the intentional infliction of pain to a horse's limbs to produce an exaggerated, artificial gait prized by some shows and judges. However, soring continues unabated throughout the Tennessee walking horse industry.

In April 2015, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate by a strong, bipartisan group of original cosponsors. The PAST Act would strengthen the HPA and allow for a stronger crackdown on the widespread abuse within the Tennessee walking horse show world.

How does the HPA work?

The HPA gives the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture the authority to send representatives to any horse show to inspect any horse for signs of soring. Regulations under the Act require that all Tennessee walking horses and racking horses at horse shows, sales, auctions and exhibitions be inspected and prevented from being shown, exhibited, auctioned or sold if they exhibit signs of soring. Any horse who wins first place at a Tennessee walking horse or racking horse show or exhibition must be re-inspected for signs of soring after the winning class.

Ask your legislators to support the PAST Act »

Why hasn't the HPA eliminated soring?

From the beginning, underfunding and political pressure from industry insiders have plagued the USDA's enforcement of the HPA. Lack of adequate funding prevents the USDA from sending agency officials to every Tennessee walking horse and racking horse show. As a result, horse industry organizations (HIOs) are allowed to train and license their own inspectors, known as Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs), to examine horses at shows for signs of soring. With the exception of the few HIOs that are committed to ending soring, the majority of HIOs are made up of industry insiders who have a clear stake in preserving the status quo.

In the past, when the USDA has attempted to step up HPA enforcement, members of Congress from states where soring is prevalent have threatened to cut USDA funding. There have been reports of Tennessee walking horse owners and trainers threatening, intimidating and harassing USDA officials who attempt to enforce the Act.

How would the PAST Act help horses?

The Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act would end the failed system of industry self-policing, ban the use of certain devices associated with soring, strengthen penalties and hold accountable all those involved in this cruel practice.  Most significantly, the bill aims to abolish the corrupt self-policing practices currently allowed. The USDA would be responsible for developing a list of licensed inspectors, training them, assigning them to shows and overseeing enforcement, instead of having Horse Industry Organizations (HIOs) license and choose who conducts inspections at horse shows. This reform should yield improved consistency and rigor in the inspections and penalties. For example, while the industry claims a 98-percent compliance rate at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the USDA’s own inspectors found that 100 percent of horses randomly chosen at that show tested positive for prohibited foreign substances applied to their pasterns.

Find out who supports the PAST Act

The bill adds a prohibition on “action devices,” typically metal chains that are strapped to the lower portion of the horse's front legs. The chains rub against and strike the tissue that has been sensitized by caustic chemicals, so the horse lifts his front legs high off the ground in reaction to the pain.

The PAST Act also outlaws stacks and pads, known as “performance packages,” which are nailed to the horse’s hoof to add weight and height, forcing the horse to lift his feet higher and strike the ground harder, at an abnormal angle. The stacks are also often used to conceal sharp or hard objects that have been inserted into the soft tissue of the horses’ hooves to increase pressure and pain and obtain the desired gait. This misuse of these devices has been widely condemned by veterinary groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

The PAST Act also explicitly prohibits not only soring a horse for the purpose of showing or selling the horse but also directing another person to sore a horse for these purposes.

The bill strengthens penalties to establish a more meaningful deterrent. The current HPA’s misdemeanor criminal penalties would be raised to felony-level, providing up to three years’ jail time for each violation, and potential fines would be doubled. A third violation could trigger permanent disqualification from participating in any horse show, exhibition, sale or auction.

Are there other laws that apply to soring?

Yes. Several states including Tenn., Ky., Calif. and Va. have passed laws specifically outlawing soring. The abuse suffered by Tennessee walking horses and other gaited breeds is illegal under many state animal cruelty statutes, as well.

What is The HSUS doing to end soring?

The Humane Society of the United States is actively working to end soring by encouraging Congress to pass the PAST Act. We are urging the USDA to step up its enforcement of the HPA, asking Congress to provide more funding for the HPA, offering a reward to bring horse abusers to justice, and supporting breed and industry organizations that promote the natural gait and humane treatment of Tennessee walking horses.

As part of a larger effort to educate and assist law-enforcement agencies regarding animal cruelty, The HSUS has sent county sheriffs in Tenn., Ohio and Ky. resources such as posters advertising rewards for tips on soring, information about Humane Society University workshops designed for law-enforcement professionals, and details about how the HSUS Animal Rescue Team can help law-enforcement agencies care for animals who are at risk during natural disasters.

A 2012 HSUS undercover investigation led to the arrest and indictment of renowned trainer, Jackie McConnell, on 52 counts of violating the law—including felony violations of the Horse Protection Act. The undercover video that documented the abuses aired on ABC’s "Nightline," and excerpts from the video aired on CNN's "Headline News."

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