U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, and Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, joined U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on Tuesday to introduce legislation that they said would "preserve the century-old tradition of the Tennessee walking horse while ending the contemptible practice of the illegal soring of horses."
The bill drew criticism from Kentucky U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, who has introduced competing legislation that has widespread congressional support.
In a statement released earlier in the day, Whitfield said that "any legislation that does not ban stacks and chains; does not eliminate the failed self-policing inspection system; does not increase criminal penalties to provide a truly effective deterrent; and does not strengthen the USDA's ability to enforce the Horse Protection Act, will not work."
The legislation touted by McConnell and Paul is a companion to a bill introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and designed to counter bills filed by Whitfield and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that already have the support of 268 members of the House, including U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and at least 50 members of the Senate.
Whitfield's bill would ban heavy front shoe pads and chains often associated with the illegal practices of "soring," which involves intentionally inflicting pain on a horse's front feet to encourage an exaggerated performance gait known as the "Big Lick."
In a news release, Alexander said that the goal of his bill is to "find a way to preserve the Tennessee walking horse tradition and stop the cruelty to horses."
But the Humane Society, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Horse Council and dozens of other groups have backed Whitfield's bill, calling for banning the pads and chains as the only way to do that. Trainers put chains around a horse's sored ankles so that as the horse walks, the chains slide up and down, irritating areas already made painful by soring; heavy stacks of pads are used in place of horseshoes in order to accentuate the horse's gait, the Humane Society's website says.
Tennessee veterinarian Dr. John Haffner, who once helped hide the effects of soring so Tennessee walkers could pass vet inspections, now states unequivocally: To get horses to do the Big Lick gait, they must be sored at some point.
"People say it's just a few, but it's just not," Haffner said. "All the horses have been sored that are doing the Big Lick. It's a true statement. ... The Blackburn bill continues to allow the industry to self-police. They've had 43 years to self-police. If anybody's been given leniency and time to come around, it's the walking-horse industry."
Alexander, in his news release, said the bill protects "one of Tennessee's most treasured traditions."
Neither McConnell nor Paul would comment on why their bill would allow performance gait trainers to continue to use pads and chains on horses, which the American Horse Council said is "an integral part of soring."
Soring also often involves using harsh chemicals on the front legs, which are then wrapped in plastic to intensify the pain before chains are worn.
According to the USDA, which enforces the Horse Protection Act passed in 1970 to outlaw soring, the majority of violations occur on padded horses.
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, have signed on as co-sponsors of Blackburn's bill, which also allows continued use of pads and chains.
Rogers' office did not respond to requests for comment on why he supports Blackburn over his fellow Kentucky Republican, but Barr's office sent this statement last week:
"My support for Congresswoman Blackburn's legislation serves the same purpose as other legislation introduced in both the House and Senate: to eliminate the bad actors within the industry, ensure safe training of the horses and protect horses from abuse."
Except that it doesn't serve the same purpose, according to American Horse Council.
The Blackburn bill, upon which the McConnell-Paul-Alexander bill is based, "would not effectively address the continued problem of soring in the Tennessee walking horse, racking horse or spotted saddle horse industries," the American Horse Council said on Friday.
More than 50 other horse organizations, 20 animal protection groups, 35 well-known horse industry professionals, and more than 76 veterinarian groups and individuals also have endorsed Whitfield's bill, which is known as the PAST Act, for Prevent All Soring Tactics.