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October 26, 2012

The HSUS Asks Federal Court to Uphold Vital Regulations to Protect Tennessee Walking Horses

New federal regulations critically needed to address widespread corruption in Tennessee walking horse industry

Horse performing the

Chad Sisneros/HSUS

The Humane Society of the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief with a federal court in Texas, asking the court to uphold much-needed regulations issued by the United States Department of Agriculture to strengthen enforcement of the Horse Protection Act to prevent the cruel practice of horse “soring,” the application of painful chemicals or other painful training methods to force them to perform an artificially high-stepping gait for show competitions.

The regulations require that USDA-certified horse industry organizations impose uniform mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the act. Horse industry organizations are the industry’s self-policing groups that operate alongside the USDA to conduct inspections at Tennessee walking horse competitions. In 2010, The HSUS, along with horse industry and animal protection groups, filed a legal petition with USDA seeking regulatory changes to improve HPA enforcement – including the implementation of a mandatory penalty structure.

The plaintiffs in SHOW et al. v. USDA – a horse industry organization and two participants in horse shows – sued the USDA, contending that the regulations are unlawful and violate their constitutional rights. The HSUS’ brief makes clear that these arguments have no legal foundation.  

“By challenging these regulations, the walking horse industry has made it clear that it has no interest in cleaning up its act and getting rid of the brutal practice of soring,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president for animal protection litigation and investigations for The HSUS. “We know that soring is not limited to a ‘few bad apples,’ and we applaud USDA’s decision to develop new regulations to improve Horse Protection Act enforcement.”

The Horse Protection Act prohibits the showing and transporting of horses whose legs have been “sored.” There is abundant evidence that soring of Tennessee walking horses and other related breeds remains prevalent throughout this industry despite the decades-old law. A recent undercover investigation by The HSUS revealed shocking horse abuse by a nationally-known trainer, demonstrating that the practice of soring exists in top training barns. A large part of the problem is corruption in the horse industry organizations that routinely overlook soring violations or impose benign penalties that have no deterrent impact. 

The Humane Society of the United States is represented in this matter pro bono by attorneys from the law firm of Latham & Watkins, as well as by lawyers from The HSUS.

Background:

  • The HSUS’ undercover investigation led to a 52-count indictment of Jackie McConnell, who pleaded guilty to one count of felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act, and three of his associates. In September, a federal court sentenced him to three years of probation and a $75,000 fine.  McConnell also faces prosecution for violations of the Tennessee animal cruelty statute.

  • USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducted random testing at various Tennessee walking horse competitions, and the results indicate that a shocking 97.6 percent of the samples tested positive for prohibited foreign substances in 2011. In 2010, 86 percent of samples tested positive. These prohibited substances included numbing agents and drugs that mask evidence of abuse. Most troubling, of the 52 horses tested at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the largest and most prominent walking horse show in the country, every single horse tested positive for illegal agents.

  • The HSUS filed a legal petition asking USDA to treat the use of illegal numbing or masking chemicals on horses’ legs as a felony under the Horse Protection Act.

  • H.R. 6388, the Horse Protection Act Amendments of 2012, sponsored by Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., will 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. The HSUS urges Congress to pass this bill, which now has 43 co-sponsors in the House.

Media Contacts: Stephanie Twining, 301-258-1491, stwining@humanesociety.org

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