By PAUL C. BARTON, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Two House members introduced legislation Thursday to deter training methods for Tennessee walking horses that emphasize soring, the infliction of pain to the legs, joints and hoofs of horses so that their gait becomes more high-stepping.
While soring -- most commonly involving the application of caustic chemicals to a horse's forelegs -- is already against the law, Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said their bill would amend the Horse Protection Act of 1970 to:
-- Put the Agriculture Department in charge of licensing inspectors and have it assign an inspector to any show that requests one. It also increases the number of inspectors the agency can use for surprise inspections at shows that don't request a licensed inspector. Funding for the increase in inspectors would come from giving the department a share of the entrance fees that horse owners pay at shows.
-- Outlaw the use of "action devices" that rub on sore areas of a horse to increase pain.
-- Increase penalties for soring, with fines of up to $5,000 or imprisonment for up to three years or both.
-- Increases fines from $2,000 to $4,000 for hiring an unlicensed inspector.
Whitfield and Cohen announced the bill at a Capitol Hill press conference where they also showed a an undercover video aired by the ABC News show Nightline that showed horses wrenching in pain because of soring techniques employed by walking horse trainers.
No matter what the industry says, "it appears this is a widespread practice," Whitfield said.
About the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization in particular, he added, "I think it's pretty obvious they have been turning their eyes away."
He and Cohen described the bill as giving horse shows more incentive to use inspectors rather than risk surprise inspections.
And Cohen said treatment of animals is a reflection of society's character.
"There is no ribbon, no prize nor championship worth the price of one's humanity," the Memphis lawmaker said.
Those who downplay the issue, Cohen said, should "put some of these astringents on their own ankles and see what it feels like."
The Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization denounced the proposed bill.
"The attacks from Congressman Whitfield are expected as his wife is the vice president of legislative affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, an organization that stands to gain financially for going after the walking horse industry," Jeffrey Howard, communications director for the group, said in a statement.
The statement alluded to gains in contributions that the Humane Society would receive because of its championing of the issue.
"It is shameful that elected officials would attack an industry that means so much to small communities across the country, all for political gain. Have they ever talked to anyone who rides a walking horse, to anyone who lives in the communities to which this animal and the sport means something?" Howard added.
If the Humane Society were really interested in reform, Howard said, "they would attack the bad actors and support the reforms that are working to rid the system of soring trainers. They don't care about the people whose lives they affect on their path to tear down an industry to promote their own organization."
Members of Congress from Middle Tennessee said they hadn't had a chance to read the bill yet but were opposed to inhumane treatment of animals.
"I met with Congressman Whitfield and look forward to reviewing his proposal," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican.
Of the undercover video, the senator added: "Anyone who cares about horses should be shocked by this video, which is why there is a 52-count criminal indictment under the U.S. Horse Protection Act. I will work in the Senate to strengthen the Act and add more money to enforce it. The walking-horse industry should step up its self-policing so that a few bad actors don't destroy one of our state's most treasured traditions."
The video led to the federal indictment against Jackie McConnell of Shelbyville and three other trainers and assistants.
A spokesman for Republican Sen. Bob Corker said: "Sen. Corker doesn't want to see any animals mistreated and supports efforts to deter this kind of abuse."
Corker has not had a chance to read the new bill, though, his office said.
A spokesman for Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said he opposes soring as well and is already working to increase Agriculture Department funding for inspections.
He plans to review the Whitfield-Cohen bill, the spokesman said.
The office of Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, had a similar response.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, opposes "inhumane treatment of all animals," but hasn't had a chance to review the legislation either, her office said.
And Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, said in a statement: "I'm currently involved in discussions with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, who has jurisdiction over this issue, to mutually ensure the safety and the health of the industry and sport for years to come. I think we can all agree that it is important to protect these animals, but we also want to make sure that the inspection process is fair and minimizes uncertainty."
The Animal and Plant Health Instruction Service is part of the Agriculture Department.
Because the Agriculture Department now only gets a small appropriation for horse show inspections -- about $400,000 a year -- it can only perform spot inspections at about 6 percent of such events nationwide, Whitfield's staff said..
His staff could not immediately say how much the department would gain for such purposes by getting a share of entrance fees.
Whitfield and others warned the bill would not be easy to pass.
"They are well-organized in the political arena," the Kentucky lawmaker said.
Also at the press conference was former Democratic Sen. Joseph Tydings of Maryland, who shepherded the 1970 legislation.
He said the walking horse industry is already lining up powerful lobbyists to defeat the Whitfield-Cohen bill.
He said it is routine for the industry to threaten Agriculture Department funding if the agency becomes aggressive in policing horse trainers.
One of the cosponsors of the new bill, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said of walking horses, "That extreme high-stepping gait is not natural" and that soring shows "the darkside of our relationship with horses."
Contact Paul C. Barton at email@example.com