Nearly 50 years ago, Congress passed the Horse Protection Act (HPA) to protect horses from the abusive practice of soring, which involves intentionally inflicting pain on the animal’s legs to produce an exaggerated high-stepping gait for competitions involving Tennessee Walking Horses and similar breeds. Soring methods include applying diesel fuel and kerosene to burn the skin, grinding down hooves to expose sensitive tissue, and applying sharp or abrasive objects to tender areas to maximize pain.
While enforcement failings and weak punishment have long allowed soring to persist, HPA enforcement has taken a dramatic nosedive under the current administration. The situation is depressingly similar to the administration’s abandonment of Animal Welfare Act enforcement (see page 18). In fact, a sea of zeroes illustrates the precipitous plunge in HPA enforcement. In fiscal year 2016, the USDA issued 956 warnings for HPA violations. In 2017, that number dropped to 213. In 2018, the USDA issued zero warnings for HPA violations.
The decline appears particularly stark in contrast to a flurry of enforcement activity in 2016. Following the 2016 National Celebration (the crowning event and largest horse show for the Tennessee Walking Horse breed), the USDA initiated 38 separate administrative complaints, noting over 600 previous official warnings.
Unfortunately, such enforcement actions and scrutiny were short-lived; the USDA also had zero new investigations—from which all enforcement actions stem—and zero administrative complaints in fiscal year 2018. In fact, through information obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, AWI learned that no HPA administrative complaints had been filed for over two years.
The notion that the show horse industry is simply cleaning up its act and that soring has become far less prevalent is an understandably enticing narrative for the USDA to promote. Indeed, in the 2018 Animal Care Impact Report, the USDA proudly reports that 89 percent of the horses inspected by the USDA were in compliance. It noted further that USDA inspectors issued only 3.6 percent more noncompliance findings at shows compared to “designated qualified persons”—the private inspectors chosen by the industry to self-police the shows. The USDA would have us believe that this is an indication that the self-policing scheme is working. What it actually demonstrates is that the USDA has scaled back enforcement to the point that it is barely distinguishable from an industry that has no incentive to punish its own.
AWI is pressing for much-needed enforcement of the law. We continue to advocate in Congress for passage of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which would lead to stronger punishments and more substantive enforcement by ending the horse show industry’s failed self-policing scheme. The legislation has already amassed over 300 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and will receive a vote in that chamber this summer. We also spearheaded a meeting this month between USDA officials and representatives from a number of animal welfare and veterinary groups to discuss the crisis concerning the USDA’s lack of oversight and the need to improve transparency with HPA enforcement.