Op-Ed: More Opposition to the Revised PAST Act

Keith Dane of the Humane Society of the United States expresses further concern regarding the proposed amendments to the PAST Act, especially in light of a report on detecting soring that is due to be released in 2021.

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

By Keith Dane

The eleventh-hour gambit by defenders of horse soring and a minority faction within animal protection to amend the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act is an awful deal. It’s happening now for a reason. It’s a diversionary tactic, a substitute measure that seeks to undermine the authentic reforms of the PAST Act itself even as it pilfers the PAST Act’s name. Every major animal protection, veterinary and horse industry organization in the country is opposed to it. The few outliers are selling it as a good compromise, but the rest of us see it as a bad bargain.

In part, we do so because we know the industry all too well. The people in the Tennessee walking horse crowd who inflict this cruelty on horses aren’t interested in bringing an end to soring. They’re interested in stalling and ultimately in scuttling the drive to end a practice that most equestrians understand to be wrong.

A Tennessee Walking horse’s foot wearing chains and stacked shoes integral to the illegal practice of soring. Photo by Bradley Dick.

The deep flaws of the horse sorers’ proposal, sponsored by retiring Senator Lamar Alexander, are not accidental. For starters, it would permit the continued use in the show ring of stacked shoes (used to obscure damage inflicted on the sole of the hoof and/or hard or sharp foreign objects inserted between the pad and hoof) and boots on the horse’s ankles (with no weight limit specified). Just add soring chemicals and you’ve got the very cruelty we all want to stop.

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 for the HSUS.

The substitute proposal would establish an inspection process that explicitly permits cruelty. For example, inspectors would be authorized to pass and qualify horses to show even if the animals are experiencing evident pain in their lower limbs or hooves. The proposed protocol relies heavily on visual examination of horses, the very dimension in which sorers have perfected their methods for concealing the signs of their cruelty. In addition, inspectors would not be required to touch horses during inspections, a standard veterinary method of identifying pain. The measure also does away with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “scar rule” specifying that tissue damage to the lower limbs of the horse is evidence of soring and thus a violation of the 1970 Horse Protection Act.

Another flagrant flouting of the original PAST Act is the substitute measure’s reinforcement of the failed practice of industry self-policing, an approach that has let conflicts of interest subvert the integrity of the system for so long. Moreover, the enumerated penalties would do very little, since self-policing combined with the flawed inspection protocol and permission to continue using soring devices means cases are very unlikely to be filed.

The proposal would not reach abuse in the training barn either because evidence collected there could not be used to convict someone of soring. The original PAST Act would enable such convictions.

The substitute measure also rejects the original PAST Act’s requirement that the USDA post on its website information on HPA violations in the interests of transparency.

Photo courtesy of HSUS.

Setting aside the new measure’s fatal deficiencies, we simply don’t need it. The original PAST Act, H.R. 693/S. 1007, passed the House of Representatives in July 2019 with a commanding vote of 333-96, and has strong bipartisan support in the Senate with 52 cosponsors there, enthusiasm that will no doubt continue given the consistently high expressions of public disapproval of soring.

As importantly, the incoming administration could easily reinstate the USDA’s final rule, announced in January 2017, to strengthen HPA regulations and accomplish much of what the PAST Act calls for. The rule, set aside by the Trump administration, would end the use of devices integral to soring — the stacks and chains — and the walking horse industry’s conflict-ridden self-policing structure, which has allowed sorers to shield themselves from meaningful enforcement for so long. Back in 2016, that rule received more than 100,000 supportive public comments, including bipartisan letters signed by 182 representatives and 42 senators, and in spring of 2020, 207 representatives and 41 senators requested Fiscal Year 2021 language directing USDA to reinstate it.

Finally, early in 2021, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will release a taxpayer-funded report on methods of detecting soring, with recommendations on meaningful inspection protocols. Congress should certainly not rush to enact a new inspection regime put forward by sorers without serious consideration of the report’s conclusions.

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.

Soring is the issue that brought me to organized animal protection work. I’ve been an owner, exhibitor and judge of Tennessee walking horses for most of my life, and not a day goes by when the abuse inflicted on this gentle breed doesn’t cause me heartbreak. For more than three decades, I’ve worked with others to end it. I played a part in the first national organization created to provide venues for the exhibition of sound, flat shod horses and became a horse show judge. I later joined another organization with similar aims and served as its president, director of judges, and USDA liaison. Since then, at the Humane Society of the United States, I’ve worked with colleagues on undercover investigations, public education, grassroots outreach and lobbying of Congress for passage of the PAST Act and for tougher HPA enforcement by the USDA. I’ve had the honor of working with thousands of equestrians in pursuit of reform.

Thirty years is a long time, but I’ve never lost my drive to see this cruelty end, and I’ve never felt better about our chances to bring the curtain down on it forever. When I allow myself to reflect on what our lives might be like when it’s gone, I take a small measure of satisfaction at the thought that once it’s done we won’t have to speak or think about soring ever again. Could there be any practice in the equestrian world more overdue for elimination than this? Hardly. But that doesn’t mean we should accede to a bad deal that, with respect to horse welfare, is a non-starter. We can use what’s already on the table for 2021 to finish the job we set out to do. 

In his role as Senior Adviser, Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the United States, Keith Dane directs the domestic horse welfare policy work for the nation’s largest animal protection organization.