A horseman’s take on the issue of horse soring

Note:  Today, U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Mark Warner (D-VA) reintroduced the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act  with five additional Republicans and five additional Democrats as original cosponsors. The measure, if enacted and enforced, would bring an end to routine abuses that have occurred over six decades — a curse for the sport and most of all for the Tennessee Walking Horse. A careful look at the history shows that reformers described soring nearly 60 years ago much as they do today.

The gloves are off now,” wrote horseman John Amos in May 1960. “We plan a rough-handed campaign against soring. Our changed bylaws give us the authority to act and punish. And we will.”

Amos was the right guy to announce that kind of campaign. He was chairman of the executive committee at the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA, then known as TWHBA, less “exhibitors”), the breed registry founded in Lewisburg, Tennessee in 1935, and a stalwart in the industry.

But his dream never became reality. Sports Illustrated’s account of the meeting says a group of trainers led by the legendary World Grand Champion trainer Vic Thompson opposed the efforts to end soring. It was such an explosive subject within the fraternity that fists started flying and violence erupted. Tom Fulton, the executive secretary of the TWHBA, clipped W. O. Crawford, a former candidate for the presidency of the organization, on the head and knocked him down.

For the next ten years soring persisted, and the industry leadership didn’t have the power or the will to crack down on the practice, and Congress noticed – passing the Horse Protection Act of 1970, led by U.S. Senator Joe Tydings (D-MD), U.S. Rep. William Whitehurst (R-VA), and supported by Senator Howard Baker (R-TN). Finally there was a plan to clean up the sport and stop the animal cruelty. But, again, the best laid plans didn’t turn out as their architects wished. The industry defied the regulators, found ways to hide the practice, and went on abusing horses.

Soring has been a multi-generational curse upon the Tennessee Walking Horse. It’s the painful practice of applying caustic chemicals such as diesel fuel, kerosene, and mustard oil to horses front feet or inserting sharp objects to induce a pain-based exaggerated high-stepping gait known as the “big lick.”

SI’s account doesn’t sound much different than my own personal experiences in the walking horse industry more than half a century later as the president and immediate past president of TWHBEA when I joined other TWHBEA leaders and publicly spoke up and voted to support the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which was designed to upgrade and give teeth to the original 1970 law.

The PAST Act had been introduced by Congressmen from Tennessee and Kentucky, and for that reason, I thought we had a shot at getting it done. But yet one more time, those plans were thwarted by the good-old-boy network that had long circled the wagons and defended the corruption and animal abuse.

They didn’t stop at blocking the PAST Act.  The pro-soring coalition comprised of big lick trainers, officials from the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, and even members of my own family set out to discredit me. I had agreed to testify before Congress in support of the PAST Act and the death threats started rolling in. The decision to confront the corruption in a very public way, as a leader insider in the industry, triggered a series of personal misfortunes that turned my life upside down: my divorce, bankruptcy, and departure from Tennessee for my own personal safety and sanity.

On the upside, there were encouraging words from strangers, horse lovers, animal protection advocates all around the globe, and from a select few from within the industry that had also tried to end soring, speak out publicly, and had paid a high personal price as well.

“The walking horse industry will one day return to what made it great: natural, flat-shod, and smooth gaited horses,” publicly declared Clay Harlin, a past vice-president of TWHBEA and member of the famed family owners of Harlinsdale Farm, and the legendary Midnight Sun – a name you’ll find on nearly every living Tennessee Walking Horses’ pedigree today. “I am grateful for a new generation of leaders who care about the breed and not their own selfish interest. There is hope for the Tennessee Walking Horse.”

Six years have passed since our efforts to pass the PAST Act began, and the pro-soring coalition has continued its defensive maneuvers, including filling the campaign coffers of Senators from Tennessee and Kentucky with piles of cash. Their ability to stymie reform is a political science lesson in the way special interests are able to leverage their influence to delay broadly supported reforms.

The PAST Act is a threat to the law breakers and the cheaters. The bipartisan legislation would eliminate the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains on horses’ feet in the show ring, establish a new inspection system to create a level playing field at no cost to the taxpayer, and increase penalties for those who violate the law. PAST is still desperately needed because the new leadership at USDA, acting on behalf of the “big lick” crowd, rolled back a final rule that the agency’s prior leaders advanced in January 2017 to ban the stacked shoes and ankle change and eliminate the industry self-regulation scheme that’s allowed the abuse to flourish.

The present set of leaders at USDA even disabled a searchable website that allowed the public to determine which trainers and owners were routinely violating the law – keeping the public in the dark and allowing abusers to return to the shadows.

If you buy a Tennessee Walking Horse today, there is no path to find out if the horse you’re buying does or doesn’t have a pending federal case for violations of abuse, or if the trainer and seller do either.

And USDA has recently posted numerous “consent decisions” related to walking horse trainers who have long records of violating the federal law. Suspensions for the trainers Herbert Derickson, Dick Peebles, Larry Edwards, and Gary Edwards don’t begin until after the 2019 show season is over. Both Derickson’s and Gary Edward’s suspensions don’t begin until December 2020, and September 2022 respectively, allowing those trainers to continue to compete for the next 2-3 years before receiving any punishment.

But there is cause for hope with the reintroduction today of the PAST Act by U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Mark Warner (D-VA) joined by bipartisan cosponsors from all across the nation that include original cosponsors that include Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Edward Markey (D-MA) .

Last year’s version of the PAST Act attracted an astounding 340 cosponsors in the Senate and House thanks to our supporters. This year’s versions, including, H.R. 693 with 188 cosponsors, introduced in the House in January, will attract even more support, but we need your help. By contacting your Members of Congress at 202-224-3121 or by clicking here to ask them to cosponsor the PAST Act, we can finally get this bill signed into law. You can and will make the difference.

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