Congress Urged to Swiftly Pass Legislation to End Horse Soring

Authorities seized 19 horses who may have been subjected to the cruel practice of “soring” from a Maryville, Tenn., barn and transported them to safety. The Humane Society of the United States assisted the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, Blount County SPCA and Horse Haven of Tennessee with the seizure. The barn was used by Larry Wheelon, who has been charged with one count of felony animal cruelty on suspicions of soring - the application of caustic chemicals and painful devices to the hooves and legs of horses to produce the artificial high-stepping “Big-Lick” gait that gains unfair competitive advantage at horse shows. Additional charges are possible pending the outcome of the investigation. The sheriff’s office assisted in serving a search warrant last Thursday after receiving a tip about possible animal cruelty. Authorities said they discovered horses visibly in pain and several barely able to stand. Wheelon, who is an active director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and sits on its ethics committee, has been cited by inspectors at least 15 times for violations of the federal Horse Protection Act between 1993 and 2012. He is also an AAA-rated judge with Shelbyville, Tenn.-based S.H.O.W, which is the largest of the USDA-certified horse industry organizations that self-police competitions. The horses will be thoroughly examined and receive any necessary immediate medical treatment and will be cared for at an undisclosed location pending the final disposition of this case. Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS

(June 24, 2021)—Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and 46 original cosponsors, nearly half the Senate, reintroduced the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act Thursday. This bipartisan federal legislation will protect horses from the cruel practice known as soring, which is the intentional infliction of pain on the hooves and legs of show horses in the Tennessee walking, racking and spotted saddle horse breeds.

This painful practice forces these horses to perform an artificial, high-stepping gait prized in the show ring. The gait is known as the “Big Lick.” The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association are urging Congress to swiftly pass this much-needed legislation.

The PAST Act amends the 1970 Horse Protection Act to ban devices that are integral to the soring process. These devices include chains that are used in combination with caustic, burning chemicals to inflame the horses’ tender ankles. Another tactic that would be banned is the use of tall, heavy stacked shoes that are attached to hooves, causing tendon and joint damage. The shoes obscure the painful cutting or grinding of the animals’ delicate soles and hard or sharp objects inserted to exacerbate the torment.

The bill would also eliminate the failed system of industry self-policing, putting the U.S. Department of Agriculture back in charge of the oversight of inspectors and increasing penalties to provide a meaningful deterrent.

In a historic vote, the PAST Act passed the House of Representatives by a broad bipartisan margin of 333 to 96 in 2019 and was co-sponsored by 52 senators in the last Congress. 

“The PAST Act will close the dangerous loopholes that provide an opportunity for crooked trainers in the ‘Big Lick’ faction of the industry to inflict heinous cruelty for the sake of a blue ribbon,” said Keith Dane, senior director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “Congress has the opportunity to rectify this gap in the protection of horses and we will continue to push for these reforms until soring is nothing more than a stain on equine history.”

“There is simply nothing good to be said for a sporting event that relies on the deliberate torment of horses in the training barns to produce the desired high stepping gait in the show ring,” said Sara Amundson, president of Humane Society Legislative Fund. “Soring is a furtive cruelty that we can root out altogether with this measure, in this Congress. No more self-policing by participants. No more reliance on devices integral to soring. No more anemic penalties. We’ve been waiting half a century for the straight shot that stops this wicked practice, and Senators Crapo and Warner have given it to us. The many legislators who have backed this bill have put their political weight on the right side of history, and put the Senate in position to save the Tennessee walking horse industry from its scofflaw elements. We’re banking that their bipartisan push for the PAST Act will be the coup de grace that puts soring out to pasture forever.”

The nation’s leading horse industry, veterinary, law enforcement and animal protection organizations support this bill, including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Veterinary Medical Association, state veterinary groups in all 50 states, American Horse Council, United States Equestrian Federation and the National Sheriffs’ Association. Major newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee (where soring is most prevalent) and hundreds of other groups also support the legislation.

In public opinion polls conducted in 2020 in Kentucky and Tennessee, respondents across all categories—political affiliation, gender, age and geographic region of both states—voiced resounding support for the PAST Act’s reforms (78% in Kentucky and 82% in Tennessee).

The Humane Society of the United States recently analyzed Horse Protection Act enforcement data provided by the USDA, which showed that soring continues unabated — and that industry inspectors are failing to detect these violations.  This is especially evident at shows where USDA veterinary officials are not present to oversee inspections.

In January 2021, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report confirming that industry inspectors often conduct improper and inadequate examinations and recommending that USDA rely solely on qualified veterinarians as inspectors, as the PAST Act encourages.

Undercover investigations by the Humane Society of the United State in 2012 and 2015 at top “Big Lick” training stables and the ongoing findings of soring at industry shows are undeniable proof that horses continue to suffer from widespread abuse more than 50 years after the Horse Protection Act became law, underscoring the urgent need for the PAST Act.   

Animal welfare advocates are encouraged to contact their U.S. senators at 202-224-3121 and urge them to cosponsor the PAST Act if they haven’t yet and do all they can to secure its swift passage.