50th Anniversary Celebration for Horse Protection Act Should Inspire Us to Redouble Efforts to Strengthen It and Halt Horse Soring in America

On December 9, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Horse Protection Act (HPA), the first federal law aimed at shielding horses from a distinct form of cruelty.  

Just prior to the HPA’s enactment, LIFE Magazine, in “Agony of the Walking Horse” chronicled abuses in the subculture of a show horse industry. “Congressman William Whitehurst of Virginia has introduced a bill into the House which would stop such torture,” noted the author of the expose. “ Washington’s most determined friend of the Walker, however, may be Maryland’s Joseph D. Tydings, equestrian and senator who has introduced a similar bill in the senate.”

My late friend, former Senator Joseph D. Tydings, D-M.D., authored the Senate-passed HPA with Senator Howard Baker, a legendary Republican from Tennessee. Like many of us at Animal Wellness Action and our affiliates, Tydings was a dedicated horseman who began riding at the tender age of four. He was a lifelong equestrian, a staunch political advocate for horse protection, and one of the very last soldiers to serve in the U.S. Calvary.

Tydings’ HPA was designed to end the terrible practice of soring, the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front legs to achieve an artificial high-stepping gait known as the “Big Lick.” This form of animal exploitation is still prized and rewarded by judges throughout the South especially at shows in Tennessee and Kentucky.

But sometimes the most well-intentioned designs don’t take form as the architects planned. A critical first step, the HPA contained some loopholes, and key players in the industry have long exploited them, doing their best to both coerce and co-opt the USDA, which has been charged to conduct inspections at shows and stamp out soring.

Near the end of Tydings’ life he explained to me the situation he found himself in working with Senator Baker seeking to pass the HPA and the need for compromise. He wanted to make the lives of the horses better, and he did compromise on the final version of the HPA, knowing the law could be improved and expanded in subsequent years.

That expansion opportunity is, very belatedly, upon us. Now, 50 years later, on this commemoration of the HPA’s passage, we find ourselves in quite the same position as Senator Tydings.  We have a very real chance to change the law for the better — dramatically so.

To be clear, for the past eight years, we’ve gone full force to pass the original Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693/S. 1007 — designed as a major upgrade to the HPA that would ban action devices and stacked shoes, eliminate the industry self-regulation program at the horse shows, and impose felony-level penalties. While we successfully ushered the bill — renamed in early 2019 the U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics Act — through the U.S. House by a vote of 333 to 96, we’ve had no such luck in the Senate. The current U.S. Senators from Tennessee and Kentucky believe that the PAST Act will destroy the Tennessee Walking Horse breed and are blocking the bill, and it will remain dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate for many years to come.

While I disagree with that harsh view of the PAST Act, we’ve recognized, as Senator Tydings did, that the art of lawmaking is taking as much as you can get and building on that law again in the future. The Senate, shaped by the use of the filibuster as a tool for the minority to thwart legislative action, forces parties to compromise.

Animal Wellness Action has been in the thick of an effort to forge a compromise with our adversaries.  Through honest and frank dialogue, we have secured an agreement from the industry to end the use of action devices and tail braces, to dramatically reduce the size and weight of the shoes affixed to the horses’ forelimbs, to eliminate an industry self-regulation program for inspections, and to impose felony-level penalties on violators. That’s remarkable progress that Senator Tydings would have celebrated in a full-throated way.

Tydings’ grandson, Ben Tydings Smith, agrees with us as well, and in fact penned a letter in October to the PAST Act’s Senate sponsors Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mark Warner, D-Va., that stated the following:

“My grandfather spoke often about compromise. He spoke often about compromise related to the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970, and how he reached across the aisle to the late U.S. Senator Howard Baker, R-Tenn., to pass the measure and secure the very first law to protect our iconic American equines — whose very backs this country was built upon. He went further, and he reached across the aisle to ensure that President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill into law, and he conveyed it wasn’t easy. He knew the HPA wasn’t perfect, he knew the measure could have done more — but he also recognized that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good, and that supporting progress for horse protection was the right thing to do. The status quo was not acceptable to Joe Tydings.”

The HPA has only been amended once, in 1976, but that amendment actually weakened protections for the horses.  It established the industry’s current incestuous, self-policing scheme deemed “corrupt” and “ineffective” in a 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General audit — the impetus for the PAST Act’s introduction.  It is an embarrassment for our movement that we have not been able to improve on this law in the half century for its enactment.  We should be ashamed that we haven’t demonstrated the moxy in five decades to deliver reforms for horses.  The critics of compromise play into the hands of the most intractable opponents of reform by attempting to stand in the way of progress.  They also don’t understand the political reality or challenges in trying to overpower an industry that commands strong support in a Congress almost evenly divided by Democrats and Republicans.  

We are proud to stand with the  Tydings family in supporting this compromise effort, and also with the Citizens’ Campaign Against Big Lick Animal Cruelty.  This grassroots organization that has shut down Big Lick shows across the Southeast with protests, and its founder, Clant M. Seay, was right there with us in fighting for House passage of the PAST Act. We are joined in this effort by the legendary non-violent horse trainer Monty Roberts and by dozens of humane organizations from Virginia to California.

So, as we celebrate today’s Golden Anniversary of the Horse Protection Act, we also act.  The best thing we could do for Senator Tydings on this major occasion would be to strengthen the law that he toiled to secure for the horses that have served human civilization in so many ways.

Join us in honoring Joe Tydings, and the majestic horses we care so deeply about by clicking here and asking your Senators to support this effort for reform.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and one of The Hill’s Top Lobbyists for 2019 who was recently honored by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II for his life’s work to end soring.

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