Press Release

A long, bumpy ride to end horse soring cruelty

House passage of anti-soring bill a personal and movement milestoneThe House voted 333 to 96 today – a landslide vote – in favor of strengthening the federal law against horse soring.  It’s a joyous moment for me and all animal advocates, horse lovers, and other people of conscience.

Almost exactly seven years ago, I was serving my second year as the president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA), the breed registry founded in 1935 to promote and protect the Tennessee Walking Horse. The association, for at least 50 years had done everything but protect the walking horse and the breed. A small group of wealthy individuals, years before, had become addicted to an exaggerated version of the breed’s natural gait and had turned a great industry into a corrupt one. The “Big Lick,” as it’s come to be known, had become a marker of cruelty rather than competition.

When I ran for president of the trade association, I made the decision the night before the election because God – and a few old timers named Bill Harlin, Sarah Lynn Bledsoe, and Bob Cherry – put it in my head that something had to change. It was my time to step up and make a difference for the one thing I cared about most in the world – the horses.  They have been the only constant in my life to this day.

My first year as president was like the gait of an unmanipulated walking horse – smooth and comfortable. We had increased the membership number for the first time in over a decade, developed an online registration process, and brought in the former CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. We brought in Ron Thomas to run the association as my position was a volunteer one, and I had my own business to run.

Then in May of 2012, while I stood judging a walking horse show in Germany where only the walking horse’s natural gait is allowed to be exhibited, ABC Nightline released an undercover video and story about Jackie McConnell.  McConnell was one of the top world grand champion trainers, and the video broadcast that night exposed the barbaric soring and beating of horses. Soring is the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front feet by applying caustic chemicals like mustard oil, and kerosene to the skin, and inserting sharp objects into the soft tissue of the hoof to produce the high-stepping pain-based “Big Lick.”

Since the age of three, I had witnessed soring, and even participated in it as I got older. I grew up in the marrow of the industry and won many world championships. To tell you how close to home the Jackie McConnell expose’ hit me – I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old getting in deep trouble for spilling red Kool aide on the white carpet at Jackie McConnell’s house. My parents were best friends with him and his wife.

The day the Jackie McConnell video aired was a thunderbolt. My phone buzzed with tons of calls, emails and questions from reporters, and I knew that day the Tennessee Walking Horse and my life would never be the same. I saw a light at the end of the dark abyss I’d wanted to change for most of my adult life.

I reached out to a colleague, and asked if Wayne Pacelle, who was the most well-known leader in animal protection and the man behind the Jackie McConnell expose’ would be willing to come and meet with me. That August Wayne joined me and Ron Thomas from TWHBEA in Smyrna, Tennessee and we discussed the history of soring, the expose’, and the future of the breed. We hit it off as well as anyone possibly could and banded together to end soring for good. And last year, together – we formed Animal Wellness Action – after six grueling years of battling soring in a very public way.

Over that period of time we’ve had many highs and many many more lows – we suffered setbacks when lawmakers refused to bring up the bill even though it had so much bipartisan support. We had also worked with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to finalize a federal rulemaking to eliminate the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains on walking horses in the show ring (devices integral to the soring process) and eliminate the industry’s failed self-policing program the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General deemed “corrupt” and “ineffective.” The rule was done, but there was a mix-up on the last day of the Obama Administration, and it was not properly published in the Federal Register by Director Oliver Potts despite U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, Priscilla Presley, Wayne, myself, and former U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield burning the midnight oil to try and get the Federal Register published on Inauguration Day for the first time in American history. The folks who took the keys at USDA and the Office of Management and Budget immediately nixed all regulations and that had been in progress, dooming the anti-soring rule.

But today, I have renewed faith, and new hope that the horses will win, the abuse will end, and that the “Big Lick” animal cruelty created by soring will be eradicated from the face of this earth forever.

Today marked one of the most historic days for the protection of our iconic American horses that we’ve seen in half a century – one of a few since the Horse Protection Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

The House’s passing of the U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693, is the biggest moment in the life of this issue in 49 years. Thanks especially to Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), Ted Yoho (R-FL) – co-chairs of the Congressional Veterinary Medicine Caucus – along with Steve Cohen, Ron Estes (R-KS), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Chris Collins (R-NY) for leading the bill, and to Reps. Ted Budd (R-NC), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and Buddy Carter (R-GA) for championing it on the House floor last night. Thanks to the 308 cosponsors of the bill, and to the 333 House lawmakers who voted for it today. And many thanks to the U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) for the leadership’s tireless work getting this bill over the finish line.

The PAST Act, if enacted into law, will eliminate the large stacked shoes and ankle chains, will end the industry’s failed self-policing system and will also increase penalties for abusers that violate the Horse Protection Act that my late friend Senator Tydings authored.

Tydings fought for more than 50 years to end the scourge of soring, and today we’ve made the greatest step yet to protect the horses. The war against soring isn’t over but we made a big statement today. I believe in good, and I believe that good will win – the Senate PAST Act, led by U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Mark Warner (D-VA) with 41 total cosponsors can be moved with the diligence, persistence, and dedicated work of the advocates like you – the American people, who will no longer tolerate this abuse.

I hope you’ll take a moment to enjoy this Herculean feat we’ve accomplished today, and that you’ll help us overcome the obstacles in the Senate by taking action here to ask your Senators to cosponsor the PAST Act.  We are making progress, unmistakable progress.

I’d like to give a special shout out to the Members of Congress and their staff that have led this effort, the All American Walking Horse Alliance, American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Horse Council, Citizen’s Campaign Against Big Lick Animal Cruelty, Friends of Sound Horses, and the tens of thousands of folks who helped the horses and the Tennessee Walking Horse breed win today. Long live the Tennessee Walking Horse and its people.

Animal Wellness Action is a Washington, D.C.-based 501(c)(4) whose mission is to help animals by promoting laws and regulations at federal, state and local levels that forbid cruelty to all animals. The group also works to enforce existing anti-cruelty and wildlife protection laws. Animal Wellness Action believes helping animals helps us all. Twitter: @AWAction_News

Animal Wellness Foundation is a Los Angeles-based private charitable organization with a mission of helping animals by making veterinary care available to everyone with a pet, regardless of economic ability. We organize rescue efforts and medical services for dogs and cats in need and help homeless pets find a loving caregiver. We are advocates for getting veterinarians to the front lines of the animal welfare movement; promoting responsible pet ownership; and vaccinating animals against infectious diseases such as distemper. We also support policies that prevent animal cruelty and that alleviate suffering. We believe helping animals helps us all.