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Marty Irby: House finally passes anti-soring law to protect Tennessee Walking Horse; bill goes to Senate

The House voted 333 to 96 late yesterday – a landslide vote – in favor of strengthening the federal law against horse soring. It’s a joyous moment for me and all animal advocates, horse lovers, and other people of conscience.

Almost exactly seven years ago, I was serving my second year as the president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA), the breed registry founded in 1935 to promote and protect the Tennessee Walking Horse. The association, for at least 50 years had done everything but protect the walking horse and the breed. A small group of wealthy individuals, years before, had become addicted to an exaggerated version of the breed’s natural gait and had turned a great industry into a corrupt one. The “Big Lick,” as it’s come to be known, had become a marker of cruelty rather than competition.

When I ran for president of the trade association, it was my time to step up and make a difference for the one thing I cared about most in the world – the horses.  They have been the only constant in my life to this day.

My first year as president was like the gait of an unmanipulated walking horse – smooth and comfortable. We had increased the membership number for the first time in over a decade, developed an online registration process, and brought in the former CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

Then in May of 2012, while I stood judging a walking horse show in Germany where only the walking horse’s natural gait is allowed to be exhibited, ABC Nightline released an undercover video and story about Jackie McConnell. McConnell was one of the top world grand champion trainers, and the video broadcast that night exposed the barbaric soring and beating of horses.

Soring is the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front feet by applying caustic chemicals like mustard oil, and kerosene to the skin, and inserting sharp objects into the soft tissue of the hoof to produce the high-stepping pain-based “Big Lick.”

Since the age of three, I had witnessed soring and even participated in it as I got older. I grew up in the marrow of the industry and won many world championships… (but) The day the Jackie McConnell video aired was a thunderbolt. My phone buzzed with tons of calls, emails, and questions from reporters, and I knew that day the Tennessee Walking Horse and my life would never be the same. I saw a light at the end of the dark abyss I’d wanted to change for most of my adult life.

I reached out to a colleague and asked if Wayne Pacelle, who was the most well-known leader in animal protection and the man behind the Jackie McConnell expose’ would be willing to come and meet with me. That August Wayne joined me and Ron Thomas from TWHBEA in Smyrna, Tennessee and we discussed the history of soring, the expose,’ and the future of the breed. We . . .banded together to end soring for good. . .and formed Animal Wellness Action – after six grueling years of battling soring in a very public way.

Over that period of time we’ve had many highs and many many more lows – we suffered setbacks when lawmakers refused to bring up the bill even though it had so much bipartisan support. We had also worked with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to finalize a federal rulemaking to eliminate the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains on walking horses in the show ring (devices integral to the soring process) and eliminate the industry’s failed self-policing program the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General deemed “corrupt” and “ineffective.” The rule was done, but there was a mix-up on the last day of the Obama Administration, and it was not properly published in the Federal Register by Director Oliver Potts despite U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, Priscilla Presley, Wayne, myself, and former U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield burning the midnight oil to try and get the Federal Register published on Inauguration Day for the first time in American history. The folks who took the keys at USDA and the Office of Management and Budget immediately nixed all regulations and that had been in progress, dooming the anti-soring rule.

But today, I have renewed faith, and new hope that the horses will win, the abuse will end, and that the “Big Lick” animal cruelty created by soring will be eradicated from the face of this earth forever.

(The passage) marked one of the most historic days for the protection of our iconic American horses that we’ve seen in half a century – one of a few since the Horse Protection Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

The House’s passing of the U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693, is the biggest moment in the life of this issue in 49 years. Thanks especially to Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), Ted Yoho (R-FL) – co-chairs of the Congressional Veterinary Medicine Caucus – along with Steve Cohen, Ron Estes (R-KS), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Chris Collins (R-NY) for leading the bill, and to Reps. Ted Budd (R-NC), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and Buddy Carter (R-GA) for championing it on the House floor last night. Thanks to the 308 cosponsors of the bill, and to the 333 House lawmakers who voted for it today.

The PAST Act, if enacted into law, will eliminate the large stacked shoes and ankle chains, will end the industry’s failed self-policing system and will also increase penalties for abusers that violate the Horse Protection Act that my late friend Senator Tydings authored.

Marty Irby is head of Animal Wellness Action.

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  1. Kristi Quaintance says:

    Just for clarification, Animal Wellness Action has been around for about 2 years. There is a groundswell of grassroots activists across this country who have been working to end soring for decades. Decades! If I was entrenched in the sore horse industry a mere 7 years ago, I wouldn’t be patting myself on the back. I would be thanking HSUS and every person who made a call or sent a postcard or did whatever they were asked to do to see an end to this atrocity. And it shouldn’t have taken the McConnell video to open your eyes. Your common sense should have been screaming at you.

  2. Sherry Uribe says:


  3. Marcine McBride says:

    Why is rhe Republican majority Senate refusing to shut down the Big Lick? Which senators have political connections to Big Lick trainers and owners?

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