Final Rule is Not the End but It Sends a Signal for the Beginning of the End

Today the USDA   issued a press release telling the general public and the more than 130,000 interested people and organizations who commented on the department's proposed rule that would enhance the enforcement of the federal Horse Protection Act that the final rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few days.  You can check out what this means on the New  section of this site and also on Full Opinions.  We aren't there yet, but we are certainly closer than we were a year ago. 

A new Congress  could weigh in, putting this rule in the "throw it out with the bathwater treatment"  it seems to envision under the newly passed Midnight Rule legislation, although that would involved giving the bum's rush to more than 300 legislators who signed on to the original PAST Act legislation,    stalled and stymied by a few southern congressmen and senators in the tank for big lick interests.  Many of the 300   signed a letter to  Secretary Vilsack in 2016  urging the rapid implementation of the rule for the good of the horse and as a necessary part of enforcing an existing federal law.  The PAST Act had tremendous bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress and the USDA rule reflects their concerns as well as the concerns of both supporters and opponents. 

If you're an optimist, you  would hope that the big lick community  , would take  a careful look at the final rule, including the timelines,  and accept  the fact that everything in life has to   evolve or die .  They could    realize that this rule throws them the lifeline they need in order  to rethink their show horse and figure out how to get it back into the realm of public approval, in the same way that other high action horses are accepted by the USEF and the horse  show  public.   Having to make the change is one last thing  they could blame on the government, but it also  gives the more progressive thinkers in the  business an opportunity to say that,  although they have been forced to make the changes, change in the long run could be good for business.  

If you're a realist, you already know  that like Custer, the band of  moneyed diehards will likely  raise sufficient funds  to file for an immediate injunction against the rule when it is implemented by the USDA.  Their lawyers will  try to tie the rule up  long enough for the big lick contingent  to continue at least for another season or two, or perhaps forever, should they have a lucky run in the courts.  If their history is any indication, that's how they will play today's news. 

But, the existence of over 130,000 comments on the rule, not 11,000 as was reported in a walking horse trade publication, tells you that change has already become part of the public dialogue about  the trained  sore horse with its ungainly and harmful shoeing and its totally unnatural way of going.  This issue isn't going away until the cause of the issue goes away and the issue of the sore horse is very bad for business ( and for business as usual) , indeed.  

One person who   committed the organization he leads to ending the the practice of horse soring and unnatural gaits,  while  hoping to see the Walking and Racking horses returned to popularity and their natural way of going in both pleasure and show riding,  is HSUS CEO  Wayne Pacelle.  In his blog  A  Humane Nation he commented on today's USDA announcement, and reminded readers that almost from the beginning of the HSUS, the issue of the sore walking horse has been a high priority for   the organization's agenda. The USDA's final rule is a legitimate source of satisfaction for his organization as well as for so many others who have contributed to the results announced today.      The text of his remarks are below: 

After years-long anti-soring campaign, USDA bans torture of walking horses

"Pushed to act by a series of HSUS undercover investigations and a national campaign that attracted the support of more than 300 members of the U.S. House and Senate across the political spectrum, the U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced strict new rules to crack down on the barbaric practice of horse soring — the intentional infliction of pain on the legs and hooves of show Tennessee walking horses and related breeds, to force them to perform the artificial, pain-based “Big Lick” gait. 

An enormous coalition of animal welfare groups, horse industry organizations, veterinary organizations, law enforcement, and others backed federal action, but ultimately credit goes to President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for getting this done on their watch. This has been one of The HSUS’s top federal priorities, and I am thrilled to pass on this news to you today. We will, however, have to be vigilant that President-elect Trump and a handful of opponents in Congress do not interfere with implementation of this rule; meanwhile, we’ll continue to press for federal legislation to build on the regulatory reforms, so the battle is not entirely over.

As requested in a rulemaking petition submitted by HSUS attorneys with the assistance of the law firm Latham & Watkins, the USDA rule, which was years in the making, bans the use of stacks and chains on Tennessee walking horses and racking horses (the breeds that have been chronic victims of soring). These medieval-looking devices accentuate the pain when chemicals are burned into the horses’ legs and their feet are injured with cutting and concealed hard objects. Injuring their feet and then forcing them to walk on four-inch stacks with chains banging against their sores creates the exaggerated gait prized by judges at some of the top horse shows. 

The rule also eliminates the failed industry self-policing program, and puts the USDA squarely in charge of enforcing the rules to eliminate these abuses. No other category of horse shows, for any other breeds, have needed laws and rules aimed at them. It’s a testament to the ongoing scofflaw culture that pervades a segment of the Tennessee walking and racking horse show world.

When you consider that the first major step in this process was taken more than 45 years ago, with Congress passing the Horse Protection Act of 1970 – attempting to outlaw the practice but leaving loopholes that the horse soring crowd walked through almost every day – you may have a sense of the countless hours devoted by reformers to deliver mercy to these horses, and to outlaw a practice that is as deplorable and intentional as dogfighting or cockfighting. The HSUS has been investigating and campaigning against the cruelty of horse soring since the late 1950s; it is a concern nearly as old as The HSUS itself.

The USDA’s Office of Inspector General conducted a comprehensive two-year audit released in 2010 that exposed how trainers within the industry deviously evade detection and continue to use horrific practices to attain the Big Lick. The OIG concluded from its findings that in order to fix the continued abuse, an overhaul of the USDA’s regulations to eliminate the flawed system of industry self-policing and stiffer penalties are vital and necessary. That OIG report provided an enormously important grounding for our national anti-soring campaign.

U.S. lawmakers weighed in on the issue in a major way, with House and Senate bills introduced in the 113th and 114th Congresses, attracting enormous bipartisan support. Forty-two Senators and 182 Representatives sent letters voicing support for the USDA’s proposed rule. Special thanks goes to Reps. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., Steve Cohen D-Tenn., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., along with former Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., David Jolly, R-Fla., Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., along with former Sen. Joe Tydings, D-Md., who introduced the original Horse Protection Act of 1970. They are all champions in fighting for reform, and their work positioned us for success with the USDA. We are tremendously grateful to each of them.

Congress still has work to do – protecting the rule from attacks, ensuring its acceptance by the Trump Administration and adequate funding for the USDA to enforce it, codifying the rulemaking provisions, and increasing penalties for violators. We expect to see legislation introduced soon to address these issues and build on the rulemaking.

But as with our successful efforts to strengthen the federal animal fighting law a decade ago, and our work to bring an end to the use of chimpanzees in invasive experiments, this rule is a triumph for our movement. We need to be vigilant, but today, we should celebrate. "