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Federal Audit Finds Rampant Abuses of Show Horses; Agency Reform Promised

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For years The Humane Society of the United States has called on the USDA to meet its responsibilities and deal with significant and ongoing abuses of horses at the hands of horse show exhibitors. The USDA's Horse Protection Program is meant to protect these wonderful animals, ensuring that Tennessee Walking Horses are not subjected to the abusive practice of "soring" -- the intentional infliction of pain to a horse's legs or hooves in order to force an artificial, exaggerated gait.

Today, the USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG), the law enforcement arm of the agency, released an audit echoing what we've said all along. And good news, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency of the USDA charged with enforcing the program, has agreed to take stronger steps for the benefit of horses.

Extreme equipment used to train Tennessee Walking Horses
Michelle Riley/The HSUS
Extreme equipment used to train Tennessee Walking Horses.

The Office of Inspector General -- which in May issued a damning report about the appalling lack of enforcement of inhumane large-scale commercial dog breeding operations -- found that the present government program for inspecting horses for soring "is not adequate to ensure that these animals are not being abused."  This is exactly what The HSUS also has documented.

Currently, in a system rife with conflicts of interest, horse show industry groups are certified by the USDA to hire, train and license inspectors who are responsible for examining horses at shows for illegal soring. That's right, industry self-regulation.

Well it hasn't worked. The OIG acknowledged that such inspectors are supposed to safeguard the welfare of horses while representing an industry too often hostile to enforcement. Further, the audit found inadequate USDA resources to manage oversight. Among the report's findings (DQP here stands for designated qualified persons, the inspectors hired by horse industry organizations):
  • DQPs have clear conflicts of interest, and do not always inspect horses according to the requirements of the Horse Protection Act. They realize that by excluding horses from a show, they are not likely to please their employers -- who are interested in putting on a profitable show.
  • Some DQPs -- when they did issue a ticket -- would issue it not to the exhibitor responsible for abusing the horse, but to almost anyone else, including stable hands working for the exhibitor, so the responsible person could avoid receiving a penalty.
  • DQPs working independently issued few tickets; they were much more likely to issue violations when they were being observed by an APHIS employee. From 2005 to 2008, APHIS veterinarians were present at only 6 percent of all shows, yet DQPs issued 49 percent of all violations at these shows.
  • Many in the horse show industry do not regard the abuse of horses as a serious problem, and resent USDA performing inspections. The practice of soring has been ingrained as an acceptable practice in the industry for decades.
  • APHIS employees were subjected to intimidation and attempts to prevent them from inspecting horses. Due to this hostile environment, APHIS employees routinely bring armed security or the police with them when they visit shows.
  • APHIS inspection teams at horse-related events cannot ensure that individuals suspended from participating in horse shows due to violations are not participating.

So, the OIG recommended -- and APHIS agreed -- to abolish this industry inspection program. Instead, APHIS will take a more direct role in licensing and oversight of inspectors, and mandate across-the-board penalties for violators.

While the details of the implementation will be critical to success and are worthy of our input, the proposed remedies are in sync with a regulatory petition filed by The HSUS and others back in August. We appreciate the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on animal welfare enforcement issues, and his department's agreement with the OIG's recommendations.

We will provide our input to the USDA every step of the way as it works to implement reforms. This audit and the subsequent positive reaction by regulators could mean an important step forward in protecting horses from needless and unconscionable cruelty.

This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.