WASHINGTON -- Legislation to further protect performance horses against practices that artificially increase their gait comes before the House Wednesday for what is expected to be an emotionally charged hearing.
The subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will consider arguments on HR 1518, the Prevent all Soring Tactics bill.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., has 216 cosponsors, including one from the Tennessee congressional delegation, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.
A Senate version offered by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has 26 cosponsors. Tennessee Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are not sponsoring the legislation.
Soring - inflicting pain on a walking horse to make it more high-stepping - is already prohibited by the Horse Protection Act of 1970.
Whitfield's bill, however, would enhance the Department of Agriculture's inspection and enforcement capabilities at horse shows and specifically outlaw the use of special pads on hoofs and chains on lower legs to make a horse raise its limbs higher.
Animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, contend such "action devices" often rub on areas made sore with blistering agents to inflict additional pain and achieve their purpose. Many involved in the walking horse industry say the charge lacks scientific evidence.
The fact that only one member of the state's congressional delegation is cosponsoring the bill angers Marty Irby, past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors'Association.
"I'm tremendously disappointed but not surprised," Irby said, adding that many horse owners who want to preserve the status quo are politically connected to the delegation.
Irby said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, has told him she will oppose the bill and offer an alternative. Blackburn's office did not respond by deadline to requests for comment.
As for the other delegation members, "They won't give you a straight answer," Irby said.
Opponents of the bill, including the Performance Show Horse Association, contend it is the proponents who are utilizing political connections. They point out that Connie Harriman-Whitfield, wife of the Kentucky congressman sponsoring the bill in the House, is a policy adviser to the Humane Society.
The Humane Society "has an agenda to eliminate the Tennessee walking horse as a breed," said Jeffrey Howard, board member of the Performance Show Horse Association.
Tennessee congressional members who did address the bill offered differing views.
"We all want to protect horses, and if the industry is smart it will clean itself up. Current laws against Soring are not adequately enforced, and they need to be. If enforcement doesn't improve, Congress should take additional steps," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, questioned aspects of the bill that would increase powers of the Agriculture Department.
"Certainly there must be sufficient measures in place to protect the welfare of these animals," DesJarlais said. "However the answer is not to simply expand federal bureaucracy and allow the USDA to inconsistently police an industry where there is less than 2 percent of a problem. We all must strive to end the practice of soring, and I believe the sport's 98-plus percent compliance rate over the past several years indicates positive movement towards that goal."
Alexander's office said the senior senator "is concerned that a few bad actors threaten the treasured Tennessee Walking Horse tradition."
Alexander is reviewing the legislation and wants to examine expert testimony from the House hearing as well, his office said.
Corker's office said, "We look forward to reviewing the legislation and testimony from Wednesday's hearing in the House."