How A Federal Loophole Allows People To Torture Horses For Their Pleasure

Tens of thousands of Tennessee Walking Horses are born in the United States each year, many of which are destined to perform a crazy-looking walk called “the Big Lick” in one of many famous shows. But trainers today beat, burn, whip, and electrify horses to make them act this way — and federal law will allow them to get away with it unless a new law proposed this week is passed.

The basic horror for horses is a practice called “soring,” wherein trainers deliberately burn and slice horses’ hooves and ankles to twist their manner of walking in a way that’s painfully unnatural, but prize-winning in horse shows. The most common form of soring involves applying blistering chemicals like kerosene to a horse’s hoof and ankles, often for days. Even harsher soring might involve “pressure shoeing,” where trainers slice off large parts of the horse’s hoof and force the animal to put pressure on its sensitive and wounded feet. Horses are also more conventionally tortured — that is, beaten and electrocuted — as part of a training regimen aimed at “perfecting” their walk. Here’s some undercover footage from a Humane Society investigation of prominent trainer Jackie McConnell, who’s now pled guilty to criminal charges:

Soring has technically been a federal crime since the Horse Protection Act of 1970 (and is a felony in Tennessee), but the practice remains widespread. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigators tested 52 horses at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration: all of them tested positive for foreign chemicals. A large percentage had also been given anesthetics, which mask the pain symptoms from soring during inspections. “Every trainer sored horses,” said Barney Davis, a former trainer convicted of soring his horses. “Without the soring, without some kind of soring, they’re not going to do the Big Lick.”

This massive, systematic abuse goes on because the USDA lacks the resources and legal backing to stop it. Because USDA funding is so scare, horse industry groups are allowed to hire “designated qualified persons” (DQPs), private trained citizens, to essentially self-regulate in lieu USDA inspections. But, according to an internal USDA audit, this system fails to provide meaningful accountability because the DQPs are loathe to report on the abuses of the people who pay their checks. As the audit report puts it, “Essentially, the horse show management gets the best of both worlds: use of DQPs so its liability is limited regarding the Horse Protection Act and an ineffective DQP process that rarely finds horses that are sore or eliminates horses from their show.”

On Monday, a bipartisan group of Congresspeople introduced legislation to end this failed system of self-regulation. The Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act would create a new USDA regulatory scheme for horse shows, ban certain soring devices, and impose harsher criminal penalties on convicted sorers. A similar bill was introduced in 2012, but did not pass.

The importance of undercover soring investigations given the currently weak state of federal laws illustrates the danger of so-called “ag-gag” laws, which functionally criminalize these kinds of animal cruelty investigations. Tennessee is currently considering one such law.