Representatives Steve Cohen (TN-09), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Vern Buchanan (FL-16) and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) recently sent a letter with a total of 114 member signatures to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging him to publish the final rule regarding the Horse Protection Act from 2016.  The original rule was not published in 2017 after President Trump halted all regulations not published from the President Obama administration on his inauguration day.  This practice is customary for new administrations and a move most recently done by President Biden.

The member letter to Secretary Vilsack read:

"The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack 
United States Department of Agriculture 
1400 Independence Ave., SW 
Washington, D.C. 20250 

Dear Secretary Vilsack, 

We are committed to ending the plight of Tennessee Walking Horses and related breeds who are subjected to the intense cruelty known as “soring.” As you know, this indefensible practice involves trainers deliberately inflicting pain on the legs and hooves of these horses using caustic chemicals, chains, weighted shoes, hard objects, cutting, and other gruesome techniques to force them to perform a pain-based artificially high-stepping gait known as the "Big Lick" that wins prizes at some horse shows. We fervently hope you will swiftly publish the USDA rule promulgated under your leadership in 2016 but withheld from publication that will finally end the conflict-ridden industry self-policing scheme and the use on Tennessee Walking Horses and Racking Horses of devices integral to soring. 

Congress passed the Horse Protection Act more than 50 years ago to end this abuse, but a 2010 audit by USDA's Inspector General and undercover investigations by the Humane Society of the United States of top trainers and owners in 2012 and 2015 found persistent, rampant soring. Under your leadership, USDA promulgated a final regulation to strengthen HPA enforcement and end this cruel practice, drawing on the IG’s recommendations. The final regulation was at the Federal Register and awaiting publication when the Trump Administration came into office and on January 23, 2017, withdrew the rule from publication. 

This rule had and continues to have massive bipartisan congressional and public support. The rule garnered more than 100,000 public comments in support, including bipartisan letters signed by 42 Senators and 182 Representatives. On February 9, 2017, just a few weeks into the new administration, a bipartisan group of 154 Representatives led by Representative Yoho wrote to President Trump urging him to publish the HPA final rule as it was announced on January 13th . 

Last spring, 41 Senators and 207 Representatives (covering 38 states plus the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands) requested FY21 appropriations language directing USDA to quickly publish this HPA rule. The House Agriculture Appropriations committee report contains the following provision, deemed adopted in the omnibus: 

(p. 38) Final rule on horse protection.—The Secretary is strongly urged to reinstate and publish the final rule, Horse Protection; Licensing of Designated Qualified Persons and Other Amendments (Docket No. APHIS–2011–0009), as it was finalized and displayed in advance public notice in the Federal Register on January 19, 2017, with effective dates adjusted to reflect the delay in implementation. 

USDA’s final rule mirrors key reforms in the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act (H.R. 693/S. 1007 in the 116th Congress), which was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 333-96 in the House in July 2019, with 308 cosponsors, and had 52 Senate cosponsors including then-Senator Harris. The identical legislation passed the Senate Commerce Committee in 2014. This legislation is endorsed by hundreds of stakeholder groups and individuals, including the American Horse Council, U.S. Equestrian Federation, and 69 other national and state horse groups, the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, the state veterinary organizations of all 50 states, key individuals in the Tennessee Walking Horse show world, National Sheriffs' Association, and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. In public opinion polls conducted in 2020 in Kentucky and Tennessee (the states where soring is most prevalent), respondents across all categories – political affiliation, gender, age and geographic region of each state – voiced resounding support for the PAST Act’s reforms (78% in KY and 82% in TN). 

In 2019, USDA and a segment of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry requested and subsequently funded a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) study on methods of detecting soreness in horses, to determine if those methods currently in use in the inspection of horses for violations of the Horse Protection Act were valid and adequate. The study committee released its report in January of this year and made several findings that are supportive of current inspection methods and recommended new ones for the agency to consider adopting. The report underscored the need to end the current system of industry self-policing, citing failures of industry inspectors to properly apply approved detection methods, and to find and cite violations. The NASEM recommendations are consistent with both the PAST Act and the 2017 USDA rule. Most of them can be implemented through policy changes and some could be accomplished through future rulemaking, but there’s no need to hold up the pending rule. 

We thank you for your consideration and urge you to swiftly publish and reinstate the final HPA rule that USDA developed under your leadership and announced in January 2017."

If the USDA were to move forward with publishing the final rule the industry is prepared, as they were in 2017, to file a lawsuit challenging the validity of several aspects of the final rule.  The rule would place prohibitions on Tennessee Walking Horses that are allowed in all other competitive show breeds.  In addition, the data the rule relies upon is now stale and data since the rule was originated is vastly different and does not reflect the data in the 2010 Audit which the USDA relied heavily upon in drafting the rule.

There have been multiple attempts to pass the PAST Act through Congress which have all been unsuccessful over the last 10 years.  Most of the members of Congress that have supported the PAST Act and rule are not familiar with the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, the horse itself, nor the equipment it uses in the show ring.  In addition, very few realize that all Tennessee Walking Horses are inspected prior to showing, that those inspections are conducted either by USDA Veterinary Medical Officers or industry Designated Qualified Persons who are trained by USDA under organizations certified by the USDA and all winners are required to be inspected again post show.

Although Cohen’s letter says the NAS study is consistent with the PAST Act, the facts actually support just the opposite.  The NAS study said the scar rule, which the PAST Act keeps, is unenforceable as written and should be rewritten, something that any rule USDA would put forth should address.  In addition, the NAS study confirmed that new techniques and methods should be utilized in inspection in order for inspection to become more accurate and reliable.  The PAST Act keeps in place the current inspection system that has proven to be unreliable and ineffective in many instances.

The NAS study also pointed out the need for experienced equine veterinarians to conduct the inspections for those inspections to be done properly and produce accurate results.  The PAST Act does not require this and would fall short of the NAS recommendations.  “To say that the NAS study is consistent with the PAST Act is not accurate and continues to show how disingenuous or severely lacking in knowledge of the industry Rep. Cohen and others truly are,” said Celebration director Jeffrey Howard.  “It makes working out a solution to move our industry forward extremely hard when so much misinformation is out there and the radical agenda of the animal rights groups continues to misinform members of Congress,” concluded Howard.