Op-Ed: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Marty Irby of Animal Wellness Action details how close we finally are to passing legislation that would end the abusive practice of soring Tennessee Walking Horses for good — a practice that’s managed to survive for decades.

Source: Flickr/USDA/CC

“Congressman William Whitehurst of Virginia has introduced a bill into the House which would stop such torture,” wrote LIFE magazine in October of 1969. “Washington’s most determined friend of the walker, however, may be Maryland’s Joseph D. Tydings, equestrian and senator who has introduced a similar bill in the senate.”

The legislation referenced was the Horse Protection Act, designed to end an archaic and barbaric practice known as soring in the equine world, and it was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

But sometimes the most well-intentioned plans don’t play out as the architects imagined. The law contained some loopholes, but most importantly, key players in the industry embarked on a sustained campaign to defy the law and do their best to both co-opt the agency on enforcement and coerce it when it could.

Soring, the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front legs to achieve an artificial high-stepping gait known as the “big lick,” has been a plague that has marred the equine world and decimated the Tennessee Walking Horse breed for more than sixty years, and still runs rampant throughout the Southeastern U.S. This form of animal exploitation, likened to something seen in the Colosseum during ancient games at the height of the Roman Empire, is exhibited annually at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

LIFE’s account of the soring activities and state of affairs written in 1969 reads much like articles from 2019, and nearly every decade during the fifty-year span in between. Senator Tydings, a legend in Maryland politics and the equine world, worked for 48 years following the passage of the HPA to fortify the law and to see the day that soring was stamped out for good.

Unfortunately, Senator Tydings didn’t live to see that day, but there is a strong movement at work to pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act.

The law is needed more than ever. Just recently, a former “big lick” owner and rider reached out with some news of treacherous abuse – pressure shoeing – allegedly performed by a notorious trainer and farrier.

The horse owner identified Joseph Abernathy as the farrier that allegedly “pressure shod” the horse by driving hot nails into the part of the horse’s hoof where blood flows. When the owner found the horse, which was shod without his knowledge, he was barely able to stand and drenched in sweat despite 40-degree temperatures at the time. The horse’s muscle enzymes were elevated and caused him to go into renal failure. 

USDA confirmed with us that the horse’s owner had contacted the USDA about the incident, but the loopholes in the Federal law have allowed such practices to be legal on private property, and USDA couldn’t take action.

Click herehere, and here, to watch videos of the alleged pressure shoeing damage and horse in distress after front legs and hooves were intentionally injured in soring incident.

But there is cause for hope with the introduction of the “U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act,” H.R. 693 – renamed to honor Senator Tydings, by veterinarian U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Ted Yoho (R-FL) in January. The PAST Act – which currently has 241 House cosponsors – and garnered 290 cosponsors in the 115th Congress, including U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) – would amend Tydings’ 1970 law to ban the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains in the showring  (devices integral to the soring process), eliminate the industry’s failed and corrupt self-policing program and replacing it with licensed USDA inspectors at no cost to the taxpayer, and increase penalties for abusers.

And last month, U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced the PAST Act, S. 1007 in the U.S. Senate with four additional Republican, and five Democrat cosponsors from a wide array of states including Kansas, Montana, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and California.

The PAST Act has been introduced in each Congress since 2013, but Republican lawmakers from Tennessee and Kentucky, whose campaign coffers have been filled with funds from documented violators of the Horse Protection Act, have blocked the bill to maintain the status quo. With the new House leadership in place, and both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Leader Hoyer at the helm, we believe the measure can soon be brought to vote – cementing Senator Tydings’ legacy, and finally ending the torture of these majestic horses once and for all, but we need your help to get it over the finish line. Please contact your Members of Congress at 202-224-3121 or by clicking here to ask them to cosponsor H.R. 693/S. 1007 – the horses are counting on you.

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

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