Big Lick Animal Cruelty: Win One for Joe

“Congressman William Whitehurst of Virginia has introduced a bill into the House which would stop such torture,” wrote LIFE magazine in October of 1969. “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.”

The legislation referenced was the Horse Protection Act, designed to end an archaic and barbaric practice known as soring in the equine world, and it was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

But sometimes the most well-intentioned plans don’t play out as the architects imagined. The law contained some loopholes, but most importantly, key players in the industry embarked on a sustained campaign to defy the law and do their best to both co-opt the agency on enforcement and coerce it when it could.

Soring, the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front legs to achieve an artificial high-stepping gait known as the “big lick,” has been a plague that has marred the equine world and decimated the Tennessee Walking Horse breed for more than sixty years, and still runs rampant throughout the Southeastern U.S. In order to achieve the “big lick” large, stacked shoes and ankle chains are placed on the chemically sored horses’ feet to exacerbate the pain and create the look that’s likened to something seen in the Colosseum during ancient games at the height of the Roman Empire, and is exhibited annually in Tennessee and Kentucky. 

LIFE’s account of the soring activities and state of affairs written in 1969 reads much like articles from today, and nearly every decade during the fifty-year span in between, just as I mentioned in the second part of the series last week. In the early part of 2013 not long after the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act had been introduced in the U.S. House I was asked to testify before the Congress about this egregious painful practice that I had witnessed since childhood. 

That fall, I traveled to Washington, D.C., and was fortunate enough to become friends with Senator Tydings. It was fascinating to hear his story and side of the half-a-century long war to end soring, as I’d grown up with old timers in the walking horse breed having long-conveyed their view of the nearly six-decade-saga. The Congressional hearing was fierce, standing-room-only, and quite heated. I spent the next nine months in part as a volunteer and later as a Congressional staffer working to advance the measure that ultimately garnered 308 cosponsors in the House, and 60 cosponsors on its Senate counterpart measure in the Upper Chamber. 

When it all came to task on July 31, 2014 – the Congressman who led the measure conveyed to me he’d spoken with then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and that due to political pressure from the pro-soring coalition, Boehner refused to advance the PAST Act to a vote, and the bill was dead for the remainder of the 113th Congress.

With PAST dead for the foreseeable future, we spent the next three years working to finalize a regulation to end soring that was ultimately rolled back – but that’s a story for next week. In the meantime, many years passed, and year after year the PAST Act fell short of action, stagnant. Sadly, Senator Tydings passed in the summer  of 2018, and never saw enactment of the PAST Act. 

But a glimpse of hope came one Saturday afternoon in November 2018. My phone rang and a well-known figure in the movement to end soring called with urgent news, he wanted to meet: Mr. Clant M. Seay, founder of the Citizens’ Campaign Against Big Lick Animal Cruelty. He’s successfully shut down the “Big Lick” shows at the North Carolina State Fair, Panama City Beach, Florida, Jackson Mississippi, and more. 

I met Clant  that afternoon and he showed me a photo of him and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had close ties to the Tydings family and Clant had just attended Tydings’ memorial service where he met them. At our meeting, Clant and I, at almost exactly the same time, said, “U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial (PAST) Act,” and we devised a strategy to get the bill through the U.S. House after nearly 7 years, by changing the name to honor Senator Tydings.

I knew we could pull it off, so we enlisted two new friends to help – Mary Tydings Smith, the Senator’s daughter, and Ben Tydings Smith, her son. They were both faithful leaders in shepherding to passage the Tydings’ PAST Act that cleared the House by a vote of 333 to 96 in July of 2019 – a glorious day of victory for the horses, and a key turning point in the campaign. 

Following the passage of the PAST Act, and knowing the bill was dead on arrival in the Senate due to opposition from the Kentucky and Tennessee Senators, Wayne Pacelle and I sat down with the industry and quietly worked for the next 15 months to forge a compromise bill. The Tydings family, my friend Monty Roberts, the Horses for Life Foundation, Carl Bledsoe, and dozens of other animal welfare groups and rescues endorsed our effort and the final draft of the bill. 

In the end, together, we secured a deal to ban chains and other “action devices” and the use of tail braces; to shrink the size and weight of the shoes dramatically, to eliminate industry self-regulation and to put USDA in charge of a comprehensive, science-based inspection program; and to impose felony-level penalties for the new federal crime of soring and increase the funding authorization for enforcement eight-fold.

But the Humane Society of the U.S. and its political affiliate simply refused to recognize the merits of the deal, including the imposition of felony-level penalties for horse soring. That group and some others insisted on no changes to the PAST Act, despite nearly a decade of stasis on the issue and the virtual impossibility of action on the original measure due to the presence of U.S. Senators closely aligned with the industry. Any USDA regulation could not come close to the sweeping set of reforms, including the penalty provisions, included in the compromise legislation. That obstructionism denied horses a statute that would be in place right now, right alongside the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act that was also a product of compromise and that was enacted at the end of 2020. The PAST Act compromise failed, and we’re now left with a bill that’ll stay buried six feet under a pile of other legislation, as I said last week. 

No matter the situation, we’ll stay the course — and with the original PAST Act dead there are really only two options moving forward: Continuing to work toward compromise legislation or advancing the previously mentioned USDA regulation geared at ending soring. Stay tuned until next week when I’ll be sharing in great detail the origin and history of the USDA’s regulatory debacles on the issue and the soring rule.  

Marty Irby is a former 8-time world champion equestrian, and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association who currently serves as executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and was recently honored by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II for his work to end soring. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook @MartyIrby.

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