Half a Century Later and Not Soon Enough: USDA’s New HPA Rule and the Long Fight for Horse Protection

By Keith Dane, Senior Director, Equine Protection, Humane Society of the United States

For decades, equine advocates have been at the forefront of the fight against soring, a nauseating practice used to achieve the exaggerated “big lick” gait long rewarded in some show rings in the Tennessee Walking, Racking and Spotted Saddle Horse breeds.  The soring faction has been resistant to change and has actively worked for decades to circumvent and weaken laws to protect horses. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is closing in on the scofflaws, with a new proposal to strengthen its regulations under the Horse Protection Act (HPA).

One of the most significant changes proposed in the USDA’s new administrative rule is replacement of the failed system of industry self-policing with inspectors screened, trained and authorized only by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Currently, the walking horse industry itself trains and licenses inspectors to examine horses for soring at events, and event organizers can choose which industry inspectors to hire – leading to many conflicts of interest. USDA data has revealed that at events from 2018-2020 covered by both industry and USDA inspectors, agency officials found violations at a rate 403% higher than industry inspectors, who clearly turned a blind eye to soring.

Under the new rule, representatives of APHIS or unbiased third party inspectors trained and overseen by the agency will conduct inspections, increasing the likelihood of catching and penalizing those who sore horses. 

Another key element in the rule is a prohibition on the use of devices and substances integral to soring. Walking and racking horses are forced to wear heavy, binding, high-heel-like shoes, and metal chains around their pasterns to exacerbate the pain caused by caustic chemicals “cooked” into their legs to achieve the high-stepping “big lick” show gait. 

To achieve its objectives, the agency should not allow event organizers to select their inspectors; we’ve seen what cherry-picking has wrought over the last decades. Moreover, to prevent abuse inflicted through the use of heavy, weighted shoes, the final rule should expand the prohibition on devices to include the use of those shoes on Tennessee walking and racking horses of all ages. It should also expand the ban on the use of all prohibited devices to include Spotted Saddle Horses, who are also victims of soring.

The proposed amendments to the Horse Protection regulations are a welcome development but they are not a substitute for comprehensive legislation. The widely supported Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act would amend the HPA, codifying and expanding on the protections proposed in the USDA rule, and it deserves to pass.

While pervasive, soring is not merely an act to create unfair competitive advantage; it is a deep-seated cruelty that has plagued the walking horse industry for decades. Past undercover investigations have unveiled the dark underbelly of the “big lick” segment. Soring is not an isolated problem. It is widespread, systemic and has been tacitly accepted by many in the walking horse industry even as our laws have failed to protect horses.

The Horse Protection Act was passed in 1970 to end this practice. The proposed regulations are not just about refining processes, they truly capture the core purpose of the HPA’s inception. In that sense, this rule is not a nod to modern sentiments, but a long-delayed manifestation of American values concerning the acceptable treatment of animals. 

Public disapproval of soring has always been strong and a recent poll in the horse loving state of Kentucky showed that a convincing 78% of voters oppose the practice and support reforms to end it. Similarly, in Tennessee – home to the National Celebration, the largest walking horse event – 83% of voters held the same view. The consistent public outcry sends a powerful message to the current administration and the Congress: soring has no place in our society, and it deserves no quarter anywhere. Readers can take action to let USDA know they support these needed reforms by visiting www.humanesociety.org/HPArule, and tell their members of Congress to pass the PAST Act at www.humanesociety.org/nosoring.