By Sadie Fowler

Representative Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) reintroduced a bill, H.R. 1157, on Feb. 14, to amend the Horse Protection Act. The Congressman says his amendments would eliminate problems associated with subjective inspections and incorporate objective and science-based inspections.

“That’s what my horse protection amendments would do,” he said, in an interview with the Walking Horse Report Thursday. “(They would) create a new organization including equine experts appointed by agriculture commissioners who know the industry best and could improve animal inspections.”

Rep. DesJarlais, a long-time supporter of the horse industry, acknowledges the importance of the walking horse to Tennessee’s Fourth District, which he represents. 
“Shelbyville is the epicenter,” he said. “Many of my constituents depend on the industry for jobs and income. Fans come from across the region to enjoy time in the community with family and friends.”

Rep. DesJarlais’ bill is an alternative to another bill that has again been reintroduced, the PAST Act, which is legislation authored by the Humane Society of the United States that continues to be their legislative priority in the Congress.

In the past, he says the industry and politicians working on their behalf have been successful in derailing this harmful legislation from passing into law. Because of this, the horse industry has experienced an uptick in recent years.

“At the Celebration, the crowds are bigger,” he said. “There’s more energy. That’s because we’ve been successful stopping bad laws that would end this historic tradition and economic resource.”

He said owners and trainers have addressed criticism and eradicated the bad actors that the PAST Act touts itself on.

“The PAST Act is an appropriate name for that bill because that’s exactly what (the supporters of PAST) are doing — living in the past,” he said. 

The Congressman says the main problem today is the incredible subjectivity of the inspections. DesJarlais, a medical doctor by trade, recognizes the importance of an objective and science-based approach.

“This is important for fairness to the owners of the horses, but even more importantly for the welfare of the horses themselves,” he said. “We do a disservice to all horses and all competitors with subjective and unreliable inspections.”

Rep. DesJarlais’s bill mirrors the bill he introduced in the previous two Congresses, which was originally introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee’s newly elected Senator.

“The Tennessee Walking Horse industry has responded to criticism and has evolved,” he said. “This is evident by the 96 percent-plus compliance rate at inspections, including those overseen by USDA. I believe this rate would be even higher with objective inspections.”

The new protocols for inspection would be based upon expert veterinarian input and be administered by a single enforcement entity under the HPA. Currently the HPA is enforced by multiple HIOs that all have different rules and enforcement guidelines. DesJarlais’ bill also calls for increased penalties for any violator of the HPA.

Additionally, Rep. DesJarlais believes the Tennessee Walking Horse industry is the most regulated equine industry in the United States. He says every horse is inspected at every horse show, by licensed inspectors, multiple times. 

“No other breed of horse or horse discipline has USDA inspectors present at competitions,” he said. “With that said, it is crucial that inspection methods are science based, and objective, with reliable results.”

As a result of the current dynamics of Congress, where the Democrats are in control of the House, the Congressman says time is of the essence in terms of folks supporting his bill and fiercely opposing the PAST Act.  

“We have a more understanding Administration and Secretary of Agriculture who helped to stop Obama-era regulations from destroying this agriculture sector,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are some members of Congress who misunderstand the issue.”

He references the PAST Act as a great example of how misinformation and misunderstandings have the potential to lead to disastrous results. 

He says the PAST Act would mean the end of the Tennessee Walking Horse, which is the real object of a few radical animal rights groups, such as PETA and the Humane Society. But he says their long-term goals go even beyond that.

“I can also assure you, that ending this industry is not their ultimate goal, but a stepping stone to more extreme aims,” he said. “They will come after all horse sports, rodeo, jumpers, and race horses. It is crucial for those in the equine industry as a whole to realize this, and stand together.” 

Last year, Rep. DesJarlais stepped in to prevent the PAST Act from making its way into the Farm Bill. It never reached the House floor, which likely surprised its sponsors. 

“But the truth is, there is a lot of support in Congress for maintaining a vibrant Walking Horse industry,” he said. “House and Senate members from Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and other states are working together, educating our colleagues.” 

The original list of cosponsors includes Phil Roe (R-TN-1), Tim Burchett(R-TN-2), Chuck Fleishmann (R-TN-3), John Rose (R-TN-6), Mark Green (R-TN-7) and David Kustoff (R-TN-8) from Tennessee. James Comer (R-KY-1), Brett Guthrie (R-KY-2), Hal Rogers (R-KY-5) and Andy Barr (R-KY-6) are the cosponsors from Kentucky.  The Walking Horse industry is dominated by Tennessee and Kentucky, which speaks to the overwhelming support DesJarlais’ bill has in the states most affected by the Walking Horse industry.

“We’re working with our constituents and supportive organizations,” he said. “The Walking Horse Report has been instrumental, helping to publicize good news. There has been a lot recently. However, we are facing a Democrat-controlled House now.” 

As a result of that Democrat-controlled House, he says there is great work to be done. 
“That means we can’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “Our success so far shows how effective we can be, as a united front. We’ll keep fighting to ensure our kids and grandkids can enjoy this great sport.”

(Editor’s Note: The following submission comes from Hannah Russell, the walking horse legislative staff member for Rep. DesJarlais. It is in reference to what constituents can do to support his bill and oppose the PAST Act.)

One of the best ways to help the industry and to defeat the PAST Act is education. Groups like PETA and HSUS are out there, providing and profiting from misinformation. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse has a very different gait, and they use different equipment from other horse breeds. The HSUS and PETA use that to their advantage. 

It is crucial to spread the word that these horses are happy, healthy and well treated, and just because they step a little differently doesn’t mean they are abused. They are the most inspected horse out there, with a 96 percent compliance rate. 

It is time to change the rhetoric, and promote the spread of the truth. Get out on social media, share pictures of your horses and community, educate others about how you care for your horses and show people just how wrong these groups are about this magnificent horse breed.

Hannah Russell, legislative assistant for Congressman Scott DesJarlais