The Horse Protection Act

Although the Horse Protection Act (HPA) was enacted 34 years ago, show ring abuse of the Tennessee Walking Horse and other high-stepping gaited breeds is still a significant, ongoing problem. Horses are intentionally abused through mechanical and chemical means to obtain an unnatural, high-stepping gait that leads to the winner's circle. Winning brings prestige, breeding fees, sales, and training contracts. Those who support soring have more money to fight the law than the USDA has to enforce it. The good news is that many people in the gaited horse industry are working tirelessly to transform the show ring into a place where only sound horses and honest trainers reap the rewards of show ring glory.

During the mid- to late 1960s, the American Horse Protection Association and other humane organizations brought the issue of soring gaited horses to public attention. Widespread publicity and political pressure spurred Senator Joseph Tydings to sponsor a bill that became the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970. The HPA made it a federal offense to intentionally sore a horse to alter its gait and tasked the USDA with enforcing the HPA, but the USDA had limited success due to inadequate funding and personnel. In 1976, Congress amended the HPA to help make its enforcement more effective through the Designated Qualified Person (DQP) program, which allows people from the gaited horse industry to inspect horses at shows and sales. The USDA supervises DQP training programs and performs unannounced, random inspections at horse events to see that DQP inspections are done properly.

The main role of the DQP is to detect and disqualify the sore horse. "Sore" is a legal term referring to:

  • An irritating or blistering agent applied to a horse's limb "by a person;"
  • A burn, cut, or laceration on the horse's limb inflicted "by a person;"
  • The use of a tack, nail, screw, or chemical agent "reasonably expected to cause pain;"
  • Distress, inflammation, or lameness of the horse; or
  • Non-compliance with the scar rule.

Despite the legal requirements of the HPA, soring continues to be a major problem at many gaited horse events throughout the country. Since horse industry organizations (HIOs) are responsible for training and hiring their own DQP inspectors, if the HIO is not truly committed to the sound horse, there is the potential for a "fox guarding the chicken coop" situation. The effectiveness of an HIO's inspection program can be gauged by data in USDA APHIS reports. In 2000, four of the nine largest gaited HIOs had in excess of a 1,000% increase in HPA violations when USDA officials were present versus when they weren't. The largest HIO, the National Horse Show Commission, reported a 1.6% HPA violation rate when the USDA was not present at their shows in 2000. However, their violation rate jumped to 21.4% with USDA inspectors present.

As a licensed DQP with the National Walking Horse Association, an organization whose founding members promote the sound horse, I have inspected thousands of gaited show horses. The vast majority of these horses were 100% sound, well-cared-for animals exhibited by owners and trainers who prepare their horses for shows with dedication, patience, and humane training methods.

Infrequently, I've had the misfortune of seeing a sore horse. At one horse show a solid white horse was presented for inspection with chemically stained, green pasterns. Of course, this horse was extremely sensitive to palpation and was ticketed for bilateral soreness. During another inspection, I found a horse so sore and sensitive to palpation that it reared on its hind legs and nearly flipped over backwards from the pain. Another time I inadvertently touched the corner of my mouth with my finger while performing an inspection, which caused the corner of my mouth to go numb, indicating that a deadening spray had been applied to the horse's pasterns. The saddest thing was that these horses were forced to leave the show with the same abusers they arrived with.

Help ensure that soring gaited horses becomes a relic of the past through education and public awareness. Horse owners and aficionados must support sound horse organizations and continue to show a strong public interest to their legislators that the Horse Protection Division of the USDA receive adequate funding to enforce the HPA. For more information, see www.aphis.usda.gov/ac/hpainfo.html, and read the article "More Than Sore" by Rhonda Hart Poe at www.thegaitedhorse.com/morethansore.htm.

About the Author

Martha M. Day, EdD

Martha M. Day, EdD, is an adjunct professor of agriculture at Austin Peay State University, teaching equine management, ethics of animal use, and companion animal management. She judges horse shows throughout the U.S. and also serves as a Designated Qualified Person (DQP) trained by the USDA to inspect horses for signs of abuse in compliance with the Horse Protection Act.

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