Federal authorities have introduced moves requiring uniform mandatory minimum penalties for horse-soring offences, in a move hailed by the Humane Society of the United States.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced a change to regulations that will now require horse industry organizations that license certain people to impose minimum penalties for violations of the Horse Protection Act.
USDA-certified horse industry organizations operate alongside the department to enforce the act by conducting inspections at Tennessee Walking Horse competitions.
The change also clarifies that the agency can decertify a horse industry organization for any failure to comply with the regulations.
The humane society described it as a much-needed step to strengthen enforcement of the act, which prohibits the showing and transporting of horses whose legs have been “sored” through the application of painful chemicals or other painful training methods to force them to perform an artificially high-stepping gait for show competitions.
The society thanked agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and the department for introducing the changes.
“We know that soring is not limited to a ‘few bad apples’ and we applaud USDA’s decision to crack down on violators across the industry,” society president and chief executive Wayne Pacelle said.
He urged Congress to take further steps to give the department the tools needed to eradicate soring.
In 2010, the humane society and other horse industry and animal protection groups filed a legal petition with the department seeking regulatory changes to improve enforcement of the act, including the introduction of a mandatory penalty structure.
When the department announced its intention to require mandatory penalties, several of the largest horse inspection organisations refused to comply and have continued to “dole out penalties indiscriminately”, the humane society said.
In May 2011, the USDA proposed a rule to make the change official.
The society argues there is “abundant evidence” that soring remains prevalent in the walking horse industry, despite the decades-old law.
A recent undercover investigation by the society led to a 52 count indictment of Jackie McConnell, a well-known Tennessee Walking Horse trainer, and three of his associates.
McConnell has pleaded guilty to one count of felony conspiracy to violate the act after he was caught on video soring and abusing horses. It is understood the plea deal means he will not go to jail.
The society noted that some top trainers cited by horse inspection organisations did not always receive penalties. In some cases penalties were not served and some trainers were allowed to serve multiple penalties simultaneously.
The society commented: “These statistics clearly illustrate that soring is still practiced among the top ranks in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and that the industry’s current penalty structure has failed to deter trainers from abusing horses in violation of federal law.”
Pacelle said penalties were not consistently meted out to offenders, and there was therefore no meaningful disincentive to stop the abuse.
“Today’s announcement changes the equation and provides much-needed improvements in Horse Protection Act enforcement, finally providing some level of deterrence for lawbreakers.
“As pleased as we are with USDA’s action, there’s additional reform that’s needed in order to root out soring.
“Animal protection groups, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the USDA’s own Inspector General have argued that the current system of industry self-regulation is fundamentally flawed. USDA inspectors should be doing the enforcement work, since they don’t have the inherent conflicts that industry personnel have.
“That’s a task that Congress must complete. Federal legislators must amend the act to eliminate the industry’s role in enforcement of the act, close loopholes that violators often slip through, and give the USDA the tools to fully protect this wonderful breed of horse, as Congress intended when it passed this law 42 years ago.”
“We will also be calling on the industry itself to take some common-sense steps, including ousting those who torment animals from the show ring, establishing a zero-tolerance policy for this criminal behavior, and adopting practices and policies that will secure a place in the future of American equestrian sport for this breed.
“We want to help the industry reform, rebuild, and regrow, with the good, law-abiding animal lovers at the helm, reaping the rewards of fair, humane ― and legal ― competition.”
The USDA’s deputy under-secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, Rebecca Blue, said: “Requiring minimum penalty protocols will ensure that these organizations and their designees remain consistent in their inspection efforts.
“USDA inspectors cannot be present at every horse show and sale, so we work with industry organizations and their designees to ensure the wellbeing of these animals. Our goal, together, is to make horse soring a thing of the past.”
Blue noted that the amendments did not change the penalties set forth in the Horse Protection Act, or HPA. Rather, it now requires all certified horse industry organizations, which have already been administering penalties as part of their role in enforcing the HPA, to make their penalties equal or exceed minimum levels.
The penalties will increase in severity for repeat offenders to provide an additional deterrent for people who have already been caught violating the act.
The changes will also help ensure a level playing field for competitors at all horse shows, the department said.
An individual who is suspended will not be permitted to show or exhibit any horse or judge or manage any horse show, horse exhibition or horse sale/auction for the duration of the suspension.