WASHINGTON – Animal rights activists Thursday praised the passage of a House bill that would impose stiffer penalties on Tennessee trainers who for decades have ducked regulation of “soring” — an outlawed practice that forces horses to step higher for judges and audiences at state walking horse shows.
Priscilla Presley is among those who support increasing protections for the Tennessee walking horse, which she called the “most versatile and greatest breed on earth.”
The breed was one of Elvis Presley’s favorites, and he would often ride his own walking horse named “Bear” at Graceland, she said in a telephone interview.
“I want to see this breed flourish and I believe that Elvis would want to see that as well. If Elvis Presley knew that this was happening, he’d be right there lobbying with me in Congress,” Presley said. “I know he would.”
The bill, known as the PAST Act and sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, passed 333 to 96. It would change the Horse Protection Act of 1970, which was created to end soring. Activists say the 49-year-old law contains loopholes that allow some trainers to abuse Tennessee walking horses without fear of penalties or prison time.
Soring involves blistering a horse’s limbs with chemicals and chaining large stacked shoes to the animal’s hooves. By inflicting pain on the horse in this manner, each of the horse’s steps is higher than usual. The exaggerated gait is called a “big lick,” in walking show circles. Cohen said the practice needs to end.
“How we treat animals is a reflection of our national character. Today, we can be proud that the House has spoken loudly on behalf of the horses and those who love horses,” Cohen said in a prepared statement.
The law would increase penalties for those who continue the practice from the current $3,000 to $5,000 and up prison sentences from one year to three years. The Tennessee walking horse industry is largely self-regulated, and the law would give the Department of Agriculture greater oversight over trainers by using independent inspectors. The measure now goes to the Senate for approval.
Presley said she was shocked to learn in 2013 that the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville had been using Elvis’ name for 30 years with an award called the Graceland Challenge Trophy.
“It wasn’t something that the Presley family approved,” Presley said.
She demanded that the trophy be sent to Graceland, where it was retired.
“It’s an inhumane treatment that has gone on for years,” Cohen said at a Capitol Hill news conference on Wednesday. “We need to treat animals respectfully, and we don’t need to be torturing them for our entertainment.”
Cohen and bill co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, spoke at a podium in front of two 40-pound lead-weighted large stacked shoes and chains that rescuers had found on a Tennessee show horse called Gen’s Ice Glimmer.
U.S. Rep. Scott Desjarlais, R-South Pittsburg, a longtime opponent of the legislation, urged lawmakers to postpone a vote on the bill late Wednesday. Though a vote was expected Wednesday afternoon it was pushed back to Thursday afternoon.
His district includes Shelbyville.
Speaking on the House floor Wednesday evening Desjarlais said the walking horse industry was already heavily regulated. He said that the Department of Agriculture had partnered with the National Academy of Sciences “to determine the best objective, science-based methods to inspect” walking horses, and asked that a vote be delayed until next May when the study is to be finished.
“This legislation is a product of animal welfare groups spreading misinformation on the status of the Tennessee walking horse industry,” he said, adding that the bill will have “a profoundly negative impact on the economies of rural communities across the southeast.”
Even though the bill passed the House, it will likely face opposition in the Senate.
Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn introduced legislation in May to “protect the Tennessee Walking Horse tradition.” A news release announcing the bill condemned soring but Alexander’s office in an email attacked the House legislation, claiming that it would kill the walking horse industry and lead to 20,000 lost job. It claimed that the large stacked shoes that the bill would ban do not cause soring.
“The Tennessee Walking Horse industry plays a vital role in our state’s agricultural economy,” Blackburn said in prepared remarks when the bill was introduced in the Senate. “It is time to address the need for common-sense reform to stop the abuse of our beloved walking horses and to implement inspection and testing methods to eliminate these problems for good.”
Steve Smith, an executive with the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, said Wednesday that he had not heard of the bill and could not comment.
“I’m against child abuse. I’m against murder, and I’m against horse soring,” Smith said before ending the call. “I don’t know what legislation you’re talking about.”
Bill Cantrell, an executive with the Walking Horse Trainers Association, declined to comment.