Op-Ed: An Update on the PAST Act

Marty Irby of Animal Wellness Action issues a call to action to get legislation that would end the abusive practice of soring Tennessee Walking Horses for good passed in the Senate.

The 75th Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee on August 29, 2013. Photo by the HSUS.

Six years ago this month, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress about the painful practice of soring at the request of U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY) – two of the original leaders of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693/S. 1007.

Soring is the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front feet by applying caustic chemicals like mustard oil and kerosene to the skin and inserting sharp objects into the soft tissue of the hoof to produce the high-stepping pain-based “Big Lick.” The PAST Act would amend the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970 to finally eradicate the practice by eliminating the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains in the show ring, eliminating the industry’s self-policing scheme, replacing it with licensed USDA inspectors and increase penalties for those who break the law.

Veterinarian Angie Lingl investigates for signs of soring at the stables of well-known Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell in Fayette County, Tenn. The undercover investigation led to felony criminal indictments against McConnell, for multiple violations of the federal Horse Protection Act. Evidence was found of soring, the application of painful chemicals, and heavy metal chains applied to the horses front legs. Photo by Lance Murphey and courtesy of the HSUS.

The PAST Act was met with tremendous opposition from members of Congress that hail from Tennessee and Kentucky, fueled by the pro-soring coalition that runs rampant in those states. But the majority of the Congress was on a different page and saw the PAST Act as an opportunity for change, and they cosponsored the bill.

On November 13, 2013 (the day of the hearing), I was joined by longtime anti-soring advocate Donna Benefield, Jay Hickey, the president of the American Horse Council (AHC), the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) executive director, Ron DeHaven and Teresa Bippen, president of Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH). All were testifying in support of PAST.

As a child of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA), my experience included every aspect and discipline of the breed. My colleague’s experiences were different but equally important, and represented the greater voice of the equine, sound horse and veterinary worlds.

We all agreed – the PAST Act was the answer to end the plague of soring that’s marred the walking horse for six decades. And we said our peace.

But the abusers were outraged, exposed and they came on the attack with a vengeance, something that was expected from the likes of longtime HPA violator Chip Weddington, who sent a threatening message, saying he’d “knock” me “smooth out” if he ever ran into me again.

National news stories on the issue and the hearing followed next, and the threats of violence escalated. Members of Congress insisted I not return to Tennessee and remain in our Nation’s Capital to help with the PAST Act until things cooled off in the walking horses’ home state.

But they never did, and six years later I’m still in Washington pushing to get the PAST Act over the goal line. Fortunately, we accomplished a major feat, and PAST – now led by U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Ted Yoho (R-FL) — finally received its long awaited vote passing the U.S. House by a margin of 333 to 96 in July – with every single Democrat and the majority of Republicans in support.

The vote sent seismic waves through the walking horse world. But as it’s said often on Capitol Hill – “most good bills die in the Senate.” And while the Congress has been fighting about impeachment and funding of a wall, the PAST Act has hit a wall in the Senate – and it’s stalled.

The bill’s now in the hands of U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which is the committee with jurisdiction over the bill. We’ve pushed hard on the Senate leadership, the committee and the rank and file members to get the bill moving with little traction.

So now it’s time to be creative – and with 50 cosponsors in the Senate, the Nashville Tennessee Metro Council recently passing a resolution calling on the U.S. Senators from Tennessee to support the bill and the Louisville Kentucky City Council passing a similar measure, the folks back home that want to see soring end are rallying once again.

Soring is a heinous practice in which violators intentionally inflict pain on a horse’s legs or hooves, forcing the animal to perform an artificial, high-stepping gait called the “big lick.” Photo by the HSUS.

We could very well see protests or demonstrations in Elvis Presley’s hometown of Tupelo – he was a longtime lover of the Tennessee Walking Horse, and Priscilla Presley has long been working with us to pass the bill. She joined us on Capitol Hill in January to meet with U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and she’s been a tireless advocate for the cause.

We could also see more cities in the Southeast advance resolutions in support of the PAST Act: Asheville, North Carolina; Tunica, Mississippi; Decatur, Alabama; all have major three day “Big Lick” horse shows.

We could see more protests at shows around the country like the one that occurred at this year’s Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville – the breed’s world championship event.

We could see another undercover expose like the Jackie McConnell case in 2012.

And with a change in guard at TWHBEA in the upcoming weeks we could see the breed registry move in a new direction – we could see a change of heart, or we could see the organization regress even further into the shadows. It is my hope that the industry — and the horse-world at large — can come together to do what’s best for the breed and best for the horse, and I encourage everyone to keep their foot on the gas and keep pressing.

Please take action today by clicking here to ask your U.S. Senators to cosponsor the PAST Act, there are 50 more that we have a shot at obtaining. It is time for the people who claim they love the Tennessee Walking Horse to stand up, put their differences aside and work together to make change. It is time for reconciliation for the Tennessee Walking Horse and its people. And it is time to step soundly into the future or there will be no future at all.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., an 8-time world champion rider, and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association.