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Guest Editorial: ‘The Gloves Are Off Now’

“The PAST Act is a threat to the law breakers and the cheaters.” Marty Irby, Executive Director of Animal Wellness Action, writes this editorial for Horse Nation to rally readers to effect political change that could end the practice of soring.

Source: Flickr/USDA/CC

Animal Wellness Action is a Washington D.C.-based organization that seeks to help animals and promote animal welfare through the promotion of legal standards that forbid cruelty. The group’s efforts largely focus on influencing lawmakers and ensuring that lawmakers who care about animal issues are elected. Ongoing priorities for the current 115th Congress include banning the sale of shark fins in the United States, applying laws against dogfighting and cockfighting to US territories, and others — including support of the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, aimed at cracking down on the long-standing practice of soring in Tennessee Walking Horses. Executive Director Marty Irby writes this editorial.

“The gloves are off now,” wrote horseman John Amos in May 1960. “We plan a rough-handed campaign against soring. Our changed bylaws give us the authority to act and punish. And we will.”

Amos was the right guy to announce that kind of campaign. He was chairman of the executive committee at the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA, then known as TWHBA, less “exhibitors”), the breed registry founded in Lewisburg, Tennessee in 1935, and a stalwart in the industry.

But his dream never became reality. Sports Illustrated’s account of the meeting says a group of trainers led by the legendary World Grand Champion trainer Vic Thompson opposed the efforts to end soring. It was such an explosive subject within the fraternity that fists started flying and violence erupted. Tom Fulton, the executive secretary of the TWHBA, clipped W. O. Crawford, a former candidate for the presidency of the organization, on the head and knocked him down.

For the next ten years soring persisted, and the industry leadership didn’t have the power or the will to crack down on the practice. But outsiders started to take notice. Congress passed the Horse Protection Act of 1970, led by U.S. Senator Joe Tydings (D-MD) and supported by Senator Howard Baker (R-TN). Finally there was a plan to clean up the sport and stop the animal cruelty. But, again, the best laid plans didn’t turn out as their architects wished. The industry defied the regulators, found ways to hide the practice, and went on abusing horses.

Soring has been a multi-generational curse upon the Tennessee Walking Horse. It’s the painful practice of applying caustic chemicals such as diesel fuel, kerosene, and mustard oil to horses front feet or inserting sharp objects to induce a pain-based exaggerated high-stepping gait known as the “big lick.”

SI’s account doesn’t sound much different than my own personal experiences in the walking horse industry more than half a century later as the president and immediate past president of TWHBEA when I joined other TWHBEA leaders and publicly spoke up and voted to support the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which was designed to upgrade and give teeth to the original 1970 law.

The PAST Act had been introduced by Congressmen from Tennessee and Kentucky, and for that reason, I thought we had a shot at getting it done. But yet one more time, those plans were thwarted by the good-old-boy network that had long circled the wagons and defended the corruption and animal abuse.

They didn’t stop at blocking the PAST Act.  The pro-soring coalition comprised of big lick trainers, officials from the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, and even members of my own family set out to discredit me. I had agreed to testify before Congress in support of the PAST Act and the death threats started rolling in. The decision to confront the corruption in a very public way, as a leader insider in the industry, triggered a series of personal misfortunes that turned my life upside down: my divorce, bankruptcy, and departure from Tennessee for my own personal safety and sanity.

On the upside, there were encouraging words from strangers, horse lovers, animal protection advocates all around the globe, and from a select few from within the industry that had also tried to end soring, speak out publicly, and had paid a high personal price as well.

“I have known for some time that anyone who sits in the President’s seat and truly tries to do what is in the best interest of TWHBEA will eventually recognize what must be done to protect the future of TWHBEA, its members, and the horse,” former TWHBEA president Jerrold Pedigo wrote in a communique to me. “Whether or not they have the guts to try and do anything or simply keep the seat warm is another question.”

“The walking horse industry will one day return to what made it great: natural, flat-shod, and smooth gaited horses,” publicly declared Clay Harlin, a past vice-president of TWHBEA and member of the famed family owners of Harlinsdale Farm, and the legendary Midnight Sun – a name you’ll find on nearly every living Tennessee Walking Horses’ pedigree today. “I am grateful for a new generation of leaders who care about the breed and not their own selfish interest. There is hope for the Tennessee Walking Horse.”

Six years have passed since our efforts to pass the PAST Act began, and the pro-soring coalition has continued its defensive maneuvers, including filling the campaign coffers of Republicans from Tennessee and Kentucky with piles of cash. Their ability to stymie reform is a political science lesson in the way special interests are able to leverage their influence to delay broadly supported reforms.

The PAST Act is a threat to the law breakers and the cheaters. The bipartisan legislation would eliminate the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains on horses’ feet in the show ring, establish a new inspection system to create a level playing field at no cost the taxpayer, and increase penalties for those who violate the law. PAST is still desperately needed because the new leadership at USDA, acting on behalf of the “big lick” crowd, rolled back a final rule that the agency’s prior leaders advanced in January 2017 to ban the stacked shoes and ankle change and eliminate the industry self-regulation scheme that’s allowed the abuse to flourish.  The present set of leaders at USDA even disabled a searchable website that allowed the public to determine which trainers and owners were routinely violating the law – keeping the public in the dark and allowing abusers to return to the shadows.

If you buy a Tennessee Walking Horse today, there is no path to find out if the horse you’re buying does or doesn’t have a pending federal case for violations of abuse, or if the trainer and seller do either.

But there is cause for hope with the change in House leadership. The PAST Act’s leaders, U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), and Ted Yoho (R-FL), are both veterinarians.  What’s more, they’ve added some history to their bill, H.R. 693, renaming it the U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics Act in honor of the Senator who authored the original 1970 law. We’ve spoken directly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and we believe the PAST Act will soon receive its long-deserved vote on the House floor with your help.

Last year’s version of the PAST Act attracted an astounding 340 cosponsors in the House and Senate thanks to the readers and action takers of Horse Nation. This year’s versions, including the soon-to-be introduced Senate companion to H.R. 693, will attract even more support, and the House bill already has 160 cosponsors. By contacting your Members of Congress at 202-224-3121 or by clicking here to ask them to cosponsor H.R. 693, we can finally get this bill signed into law. You can and will make the difference.

Marty Irby is the executive director of Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., a former 8-time World Champion rider, and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association. 

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