WASHINGTON — A bill that would safeguard show horses from painful practices designed to heighten their crowd-pleasing high gaits sparked a lively debate Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel heard testimony on proposed amendments to the 1970 Horse Protection Act from Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., that would place substantial penalties on any show horse owner caught using a practice known as “soring.” His measure also would add independent overseers to the largely self-policed industry.
Although the Horse Protection Act outlawed soring, Whitfield and more than 220 co-sponsors of his legislation claim that it’s still widely practiced throughout the walking horse industry.
Soring dates to the beginnings of the famed Tennessee walking horse tradition, whose horses are renowned as some of the industry’s most elite competitors because of their exaggerated gait. The tactics employed in the more-than-a-century-old practice include weighting a horse’s hooves or inserting nails and sharp objects into the tender parts of the foot. The high-step gait is often the horse’s pained response.
At the hearing before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, industry supporters and critics agreed that the high-step gait wasn’t natural for the animals.
“I’ve seen horses’ feet look like pizza with the cheese pulled off of it. That’s how horrific this practice is,” said Marty Irby, the international director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association.
Though many witnesses agreed that soring should be outlawed, officials and critics sparred over how much the practice persists, with industry officials saying the walking horse community has largely eliminated soring on its own.
“The current compliance rates reported by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) indicate the welfare of the horse is being protected and the industry is achieving the goal of eliminating soring,” said Dr. John Bennett, a veterinarian who testified on behalf of the Performance Show Horse Association. He said the compliance rates in recent years had been as high as 98 percent.
But critics charge that the numbers are skewed and that more advanced strategies of avoiding detection have allowed the practice to continue.
“This industry has had over 40 years to rid itself of this abuse, and for numerous reasons has not only resisted, but has refused reform at every turn,” said Donna Benefield, the vice president of the International Walking Horse Association. “They have maintained, controlled and regulated soring through fear and intimidation for many years.”
Whitfield’s bill also faces resistance from those who say enforcement could have a substantial impact on the industry’s jobs, including Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who said the loss could be in the thousands.
Whitfield denied that his bill would have a severe economic impact.
“Let me just say, Tennessee walking horses are being shown in other parts of the country. . . . They don’t use the soring, and it’s not destroying the industry,” he said. “Everyone that I’ve talked to has indicated that there’s no reason for these shows not to go on.”
Among other things, his bill bans the use of chains, weights and any other device intended to alter a horse’s natural gait that isn’t “strictly protective or therapeutic.” It would restrict a person from ordering a horse to undergo soring before competition or auction and would raise financial penalties as well, from $3,000 to $5,000, for owners caught using soring.
The bill also would raise the possible disqualification time from three years to five years.
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