Washington, D.C. -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report highlighting serious shortcomings in enforcement of the Horse Protection Act - shortcomings that have permitted widespread abuse of show horses. The law, first passed in 1970 and amended in 1976, was intended to prevent the "soring" of Tennessee Walking Horses and other gaited breeds - a process where injuries are inflicted on the horses’ legs and hooves to produce an exaggerated gait known as "the big lick."
Unfortunately, for many years a provision in the law has permitted reliance on industry self-regulation as an adjunct to USDA inspections. The audit asserts that the industry inspectors have a "clear conflict of interest," and not surprisingly, fail to enforce the law. The auditors also noted that the industry inspectors' enforcement increased dramatically when under the watchful eyes of USDA inspectors.
The auditors cite a limited enforcement budget, capped at $500,000 a year for nearly forty years, as a severe limitation on USDA’s ability to take effective action on this issue. In FY ’07 the audit notes, USDA veterinary inspectors could only cover "approximately 30 of the 463 sanctioned shows, or 6 percent," The auditors concluded that additional funding from Congress is essential.
Another significant stumbling block, according to the audit, is a "hostile" environment in which show organizers, exhibitors and spectators resent the USDA presence; the audit observes that the “practice of soring has been ingrained as an acceptable practice in the industry for decades.” USDA inspectors trying to enforce the law have been verbally threatened and intimidated, requiring armed security or police protection to ensure their safety.
The auditors recommend doing away with the biased industry inspectors and replacing them with trained "independent, accredited veterinarians." In addition, the audit suggests the need for USDA to improve its oversight to 1) stop people who have been suspended for violating the Horse Protection Act from continuing to show horses, and 2) prevent horses who have been disqualified (sored) from continuing to be shown by use of permanent identification.
In addition to its assessment of USDA oversight of the Horse Protection Act, the auditors also assessed USDA’s enforcement of regulations intended to prevent the suffering of horses during transport to slaughter, finding that controls needed to be improved by the Department. The audit stated that the USDA should establish procedures to prevent individuals with a record of inhumane transport (some of whom have unpaid fines from previous violations) from continuing to haul horses. Further, the auditors found problems with the marking system for horses bound for slaughter. Although the law requires these horses to be inspected by USDA and then tagged, tags can too easily be obtained and applied without USDA inspection. This illegal use must be stopped.
USDA generally concurred with the findings of the OIG audit, but the next few years will demonstrate if significant changes will be implemented by the federal government to ensure that horses do not suffer at shows or during transport to slaughter.
To read USDA OIG's full audit, click here.