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WASHINGTON – A study that many in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry cite as supporting their opposition to new federal anti-soring legislation came under severe criticism from the industry when it was the focal point of a federal court case in the 1980s.

Widely referred to as the "Auburn study" because it was performed at Auburn University from 1978 to 1982, it examined how special chains put on a walking horse's lower legs and special wedges or pads put underneath the hooves affected the animals' health.

It found that many of the practices of the industry, including putting heavy chains on the horses, clearly caused soring.

The American Horse Protection Association used the study as the basis for a 1984 lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing that the use of such "action devices" resulted in the soring of horses. The suit claimed that USDA was not taking needed actions under the 1970 Horse Protection Act to protect the animals from them.

Soring is the infliction of pain on a horse's lower legs or hooves to make them want to step higher and perform the "Big Lick" gait.

The issue remains relevant with the fate of the proposed Prevent All Soring Tactics Act unresolved on Capitol Hill. The bill would outlaw such devices and greatly increase the number of federal inspectors at horse shows.

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia cited the Auburn study in a 1988 decision that called on USDA to implement regulations prohibiting the use of such devices on show horses.

The Auburn study also said, however, that chains of six ounces or less did not hurt horses. It took aim at the use of heavier chains, such as those weighing 10 or 14 ounces. The eventual federal regulations prohibited the larger chains but allowed the smaller ones.

Regardless, many in the walking horse industry fiercely opposed the ruling at the time, saying it would decimate a key part of the Tennessee economy. Veterinarians at the University of Tennessee issued statements making similar projections.

Papers filed in the 1980s case also reported the industry representatives as remarking "that the allowable weight of action devices could not be lowered and still retain the desired gait."

Articles from Tennessee and national newspapers at the time quoted some in the walking horse industry as saying that taking away chains from horses was like "taking away high heels from women."

But a quarter of a century later, in the debate over the PAST Act, the industry frequently cites the Auburn study as evidence that action devices do not hurt horses, pointing to federal regulations, implemented as a result of the case, that only allow use of chains of six ounces or less.

Shelbyville veterinarian John Bennett, representing the Performance Show Horse Association, referred to the Auburn study several times in testimony before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in November 2013.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander's office has also pointed to the Auburn study as a reason why the senator favors an alternative bill to the PAST Act, one that would not eliminate action devices but would take other steps to limit soring.

"Senator Alexander's legislation is meant to punish and stop the trainers, owners and riders who sore horses, and studies like the Auburn University study show it's possible to do that without eliminating training devices that are used in many ways and not just by the walking horse industry," spokesman Brian Reisinger said.

But animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States say that position is disingenuous.

Keith Dane, spokesman for the Humane Society, says the industry "conveniently glosses over" the fact that chains larger than six ounces are routinely used in training. The six-ounce rule only applies to what is put on the animals during shows. The PAST Act would eliminate all action devices, whether in training or not.

"So the industry can pretend that the 'legal' six-ounce device is all that is used, because it's all that's allowed at public events — and further, claim that this device doesn't sore a horse, because the Auburn study said so. However, that study did not examine the effect of the six-ounce chain when combined with soring chemicals — which are also heavily used," Dane said in a statement.

But as the Tennessee National Walking Horse National Celebration wraps up this weekend in Shelbyville, the attention of the industry and horse groups both will shift back to Capitol Hill, where the fate of the PAST Act is yet to be decided.

They do so as time grows short on the 2014 congressional calendar.

Once Congress returns Sept. 8 from a five-week summer recess, only about two weeks will be left to conduct legislative business before members are scheduled to go home again, this time to finish their re-election campaigns.

There is nothing to prevent the PAST Act from being considered in an expected post-election lame-duck session, but whether lawmakers would consider such a relatively new issue in that environment is uncertain.

Both sides are telling their followers to stay alert.

The PSHA, on its website, said it was encouraged by the July 31 statement of Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., about the PAST Act encountering difficulty with House Speaker John Boehner, who would decide whether it comes to a vote.

But it added, "It is, unfortunately, evident from his statement that Rep. Whitfield, along with the Humane Society of the United States, will continue to push for legislation."

A spokesman for Whitfield, Marty Irby, said the industry is reading that part correctly.

"Our statement of July 31 encouraged people to ramp up their efforts and Congressman Whitfield said, 'I will not give up,'" Irby said.

Contact Paul C. Barton at pbarton@gannett.com. On Twitter @PaulCBarton

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