The Fifth Circuit rejected, on constitutional grounds, USDA’s attempts to impose mandatory lifelong penalties against alleged violators of the Horse Protection Act, specifically against individuals who are accused of soring the legs of Tennessee Walking horses.  See Contender Farms, LLP v. USDA, Case No. 13-11052, slip opinion (5th Cir. February 19, 2015).

Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

The USDA defines “soring” as “a cruel and abusive practice used to accentuate a horse’s gait. It is accomplished by irritating or blistering a horse’s forelegs with chemical irritants (such as mustard oil) or mechanical devices.”

The practice of “soring” is prohibited by the Horse Protection Act, but USDA, the agency responsible for enforcing the Act, has been criticized for its ineffective oversight.  In an attempt to create more robust enforcement, USDA promulgated regulations “requiring that provate entities, known as Horse Industry Organizations (“HIOs”), impose mandatory suspensions on those participants found to engage in . . . soring.”

According to the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, “[t]he Fifth Circuit found that the mandatory penalty regulation is not a valid application of USDA regulatory authority and accordingly reversed the judgment.”

The Court observed that “the inspections [which identified soring and resulted in mandatory penalties] are far more art than science. In many cases, inspectors, veterinarians, and other professionals will disagree as to whether a horse is actually a sore.  The record also suggests that those who actually sore their horses go to great lengths to hide the results in order to avoid detection, which further muddies the waters with regard to inspections.”

The Court also found that the Horse Protection Act “authorizes the USDA to develop a private inspection system carried out by DQPs [designated qualified persons] but it does not imply that the USDA may then establish a mandatory private enforcement system administered by those HIO’s.” (emphasis added).

Veterinary associations are opposed to this practice.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners both oppose horse soring, as indicated on AVMA’s website :

“The AVMA endorses the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ position on the practice of soring, which reads as follows:”

“The AAEP condemns the practice of ‘soring,’ as legally defined in the Horse Protection Act of 1970 (HPA), to accentuate a horse’s gait for training or show purposes. The AAEP supports the efforts of APHIS in the application and enforcement of the HPA as outlined in the APHIS Horse Protection Operating Plan and strongly recommends imposing sufficient sanctions to prevent these practices.”

Now, USDA will have to rethink how to enhance its efforts to enforce the prohibitions of soring horses, consistent with the regulatory provisions permitted by the Horse Protection Act without overstepping.

In the meantime, the industry should take this opportunity to do everything it can to ensure the practice of soring is eliminated in its entirety.