WASHINGTON—The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund are criticizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture for proposing to withdraw a regulation that would have protected horses from the cruel and unlawful practice of “soring.”
In response to a May 12 order issued by District Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the USDA had multiple options that would have protected horses, as required by the Horse Protection Act and as envisioned in a 2017 rule finalized by the agency. The USDA could have reinstated that 2017 rule or moved forward swiftly with the promulgation of a strong new rule, as it has been promising the public for over 18 months.
Shockingly, USDA instead said in a court filing that it plans to simply withdraw the 2017 rule—leaving in place the unlawful regime that was in place prior to the finalization of that rule. USDA committed only to take six months (or more if it decides to ask the court for even more time) to do the bare minimum required to comply with the procedural law but proposed to do nothing to increase protections for horses.
This is particularly concerning as the White House’s Office of Management and Budget has been reviewing USDA’s new proposed rule on the same subject since September 2022, significantly longer than the standard 90 days that OMB takes to review rules. While USDA has decided to withdraw the 2017 rule, they are doing so with absolutely no guarantee of any new rule coming into place that will protect horses against the current unlawful regime.
“After years of litigation and empty agency promises that relief was on the horizon, it appears that all the Biden administration is committing to do is attempt to do legally what the Trump administration did illegally—jettison important protections for horses that the agency itself said were needed to fulfill its obligations under the Horse Protection Act,” said Keith Dane, senior director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “The plaintiffs in this case—and the horses—have waited for far too long for an end to the decades of systemic cruelty inflicted on these animals by the Big Lick segment of the Tennessee walking horse industry.”
“The Horse Protection Act of 1970 made the public exhibition, showing or sale of horses victimized by soring illegal, but since then a segment of the industry has flouted the law and continued the practice, exploiting loopholes in the underlying regulations,” said Gillian Lyons, director of regulatory affairs at the Humane Society Legislative Fund. “We need an Administration that takes bold stances to protect animals. Now that USDA has committed to do nothing more than make it official to leave in place the status quo that has failed the horses who are victims of soring—we call on the White House to step up to quickly finish its review of USDA’s new proposed rule and press the agency to move forward with its promulgation, so that the purpose of the Act—to end soring—can finally be achieved. Otherwise, the Biden Administration is simply allowing cruelty to continue.”
The 2017 rule was finalized during the Obama/Biden administration under Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who is once again serving in that capacity. When the Trump administration abruptly withdrew the rule without explanation—after it had been finalized and released to the public—the plaintiffs in the case, the Humane Society of the United States and several of its individual members involved in the Tennessee walking horse industry, together with the Humane Society Legislative Fund, sued USDA. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the agency’s abrupt withdrawal of the 2017 rule violated the law and remanded the case to the District Court to determine the appropriate remedy for USDA’s unlawful action.
USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule without replacing it with any protections for horses is outrageous, according to the plaintiffs. The 2017 rule contains major changes to protect the Tennessee walking and racking horse breeds from the cruel practice of soring, including a ban on the use of medieval platform shoes (“stacks”), chains and other cruel devices intended to cause pain and force horses to step higher in an exaggerated showring gait known as the “Big Lick.” The rule, which was the product of a thorough administrative process, including notice and extensive public input, also eliminates the current industry self-policing inspection system—a system that places horse industry insiders with conflicts of interest in charge of enforcing the law.
The rule generated more than 100,000 public comments, including bipartisan letters signed by 42 senators and 182 representatives, all voicing strong support of these much-needed changes.
The plaintiffs are represented pro bono by Latham & Watkins LLP and by counsel in the HSUS Animal Protection Law department.