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WASHINGTON – A Senate panel Wednesday passed Republican-sponsored legislation to strengthen protections against the soring of Tennessee Walking Horses.

By voice vote, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation passed an amended form of legislation offered by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. The new version made the Senate bill identical to the Prevent All Soring Tactics bill offered by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., in the House, which many in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry bitterly oppose.

Soring, widely seen as a cruel practice, involves the use of caustic chemicals, chains and special pads and other devices on a horse's legs and hooves to produce a higher step.

The Whitfield and Ayotte bills propose to strengthen the Horse Protection Act of 1970. They would eliminate self-policing by the industry and ban the various devices designed to rub on a horse's leg or irritate its hoof to cause the higher step.

Ayotte's bill passed without debate, as Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told members the issue had been "thoroughly worked out." Numerous animal rights and veterinary groups back it.

"Horse soring is a disgrace, but growing momentum for the PAST Act means that reform is within reach," said Keith Dane, who handles equine protection issues for the Humane Society of the United States.

Whitfield, in a statement, said he would work for passage in the House to "help save this industry from the abuse that has plagued it for more than half a century."

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Brentwood Republican who is vice chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opposes Whitfield's bill and has introduced her own legislation. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander has also offered a bill, one similar to but not identical to Blackburn's.

"This is only a procedural step on one proposal," Alexander said of the Ayotte bill. He said his and Blackburn's bills "would do a better job of stopping the contemptible practice of soring, while preserving the century-old Tennessee Walking Horse tradition."

Animal rights and veterinary groups say the bills offered by Blackburn and Alexander are not tough enough on the industry. But the two Republicans say their bills would eliminate soring without devastating the industry.

Many in the industry particularly fear the prohibition of special pads, chains and other "action devices" in the Whitfield-Ayotte bills.

Ayotte's bill has 50 co-sponsors, half of the Senate, while Whitfield's has 268 in the House, more than half the chamber. Meanwhile, Blackburn's bill has just 11 co-sponsors and Alexander's just three.

Among the Tennessee delegation, Republican Reps. Scott DesJarlais of Jasper, Diane Black of Gallatin, John Duncan of Knoxville and Phil Roe of Johnson City are behind Blackburn's bill. Only Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, co-sponsored Whitfield's legislation.

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said this: "If the Walking Horse industry is smart, it will clean itself up so that there are no more scandals. If not, there will be tougher legislation."

Another who has yet to declare on the issue, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, said he looks forward to reviewing both major bills.

"I don't want to see any animals mistreated and support efforts to deter horse abuse," said the Tennessee Republican.

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