Walking Horse Industry's Self-regulation 'Has Failed,' Humane Society Says

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THE TENNESSEAN -- MAY 26, 2012 -- Federal regulators should once again take over all enforcement of the Horse Protection Act of 1970 and Congress should fully fund the effort, an official with the Humane Society of the United States said Friday.

Since 1976, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has relied on a form of industry self-regulation to inspect horses for soring because department veterinarians can make it to only a small number of horse shows each year.

“This industry self-regulation system has failed,” Keith Dane, the Humane Society’s director of equine protection, said in an interview with The Tennessean. “We are calling on Congress to put the ball back in the USDA’s court firmly and to give them the resources they need in order to fully enforce the Horse Protection Act.”

The act prohibits the transporting or showing of sored horses. The practice involves using chemicals and other harsh methods to produce a higher gait among Tennessee Walking Horses.

Dripping harsh chemicals on the horses’ front ankles forces them, because of pain, to lift their legs higher. The walk is prized in walking horse competitions.

Leading walking horse industry groups condemn soring and say a small number of trainers are giving the sport a bad reputation. They point to a compliance rate with the Horse Protection Act of more than 98 percent. But critics say the current system is prone to corruption and conflicts of interest.

In 2011, there were at least 474 horse shows throughout the nation. USDA veterinarians made it to 83, and in prior years attended even fewer.

The department currently has $696,000 to operate the horse protection program, up from $500,000 in 2010. Department spokesman Dave Sacks said the increase came as a result of a USDA Inspector General’s report, which cited a lack of funding as a reason for poor enforcement.

In past years, the funding has been even less. In 2000, the department had $361,000 to run the horse protection program and in 1990 just $161,000, according to USDA budget figures.

Sacks has said the USDA is proposing changes to better enforce the laws against soring. In a recent interview, he said one USDA proposal would allow the department to train and license the inspectors hired by horse industry organizations.

The Humane Society isn’t the only group calling for changes, particularly in the aftermath of an undercover video detailing soring and other abuses in a West Tennessee barn. The video led to federal charges against trainer Jackie L. McConnell.

McConnell pleaded guilty in Chattanooga this week to felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners also wants the current system of regulation abolished. In its place, a single organization should enforce a set of uniform rules, according to 2008 recommendations from the group.

Dane said the McConnell video and his guilty plea are evidence that more must be done.

“There’s something wrong with this system,” he said. “It’s broken. It needs to be fixed. These horses need to be protected. The public in Tennessee, around the country and around the world are seeing that now.”