With lawmakers divided over a bill to stop the abuse of show horses, advocates for the measure brought them to the Capitol Wednesday for a demonstration designed to pressure Congress to ban some of the painful procedures, known as soring, used to make horses step higher in the ring.
The bill by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., would forbid the use of "action devices," such as chains that rub on horses' legs made sensitive with chemicals, and pads that hurt the hooves to achieve the crowd-pleasing exaggerated high gait known as the "Big Lick."
The measure would end the industry's self-policing, and has attracted 291 co-sponsors, drawing support from both parties.
But other influential lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., say the bill goes too far. Its future is far from certain with time running out to pass this year, given a Congressional calendar that includes the upcoming month-long August recess and other breaks before the midterm elections in November.
"I'm frustrated right now because when you have this kind of support, and that many organizations supporting you, normally you can get a bill to the floor," Whitfield said at Wednesday's rally in front of the Capitol.
Six trained horses, with riders in full equestrian apparel, demonstrated their signature gaits in front of the reflecting pool at the entrance to the U.S. Capitol, a sight which rally organizers said showed what the horses can do "without the horrible devices," Whitfield's bill seeks to ban. Tourists stopped by to watch, fanning themselves as temperatures soared into the 90's with high humidity.
Horse trainer Jeannie McGuire said the same sweet, calm temperament that allows the horses to perform in the middle of Washington D.C. without getting spooked makes it easier for unethical trainers to hurt them in order to make them step higher.
"That quality that we love is also a quality that allows people to abuse them," she said. "They tolerate it."
Soring for horse shows is illegal under the federal Horse Protection Act. But supporters of Whitfield's bill say it has big loopholes and that it's still widely practiced in the walking horse industry. The 86-year-old author of the law, former senator Joseph Tydings of Maryland, appeared at the rally and said his law has been crippled through lack of federal funding and enforcement.
Whitfield's bill is stuck in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where it's opposed by the committee's vice chairwoman, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. There's a better chance for the Senate version of the bill, introduced by Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. Her bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee and has 55 co-sponsors, only five short of what's needed to guarantee enough support.
The Senate bill still may not reach the floor for a vote, though, and has influential opponents among Kentucky and Tennessee senators, who say banning the pads and chains will cost jobs by decimating the walking horse industry's performance show classes.
Neither senator from Texas, a state where horse shows are also popular, have joined their colleagues in co-sponsoring the Senate bill.
The Texas State Horse Council and the Texas Veterinary Medical Association are supporting the effort to ban pads and chain. The Senate offices of Texas Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz did not respond to questions Wednesday afternoon about their position.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has introduced a competing bill he said would stop soring without devastating the industry. The Humane Society and the American Horse Council say Alexander's bill is not tough enough, however, because it does not ban the "action devices" such as pads and chains and, they maintain, his proposal would still lead to too much self-policing by the industry.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has backed Alexander's bill, as has Kentucky Sen. McConnell, the influential leader of the Senate Republicans.
"The legislation Sen. McConnell supports would give state officials and experts, rather than the federal government, the authority to ensure reduced instances of soring by providing adequate oversight of inspections of Tennessee Walking Horse shows," said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.
Horse advocates at Wednesday's rally in front of the U.S. Capitol dismissed Alexander's bill as a "Trojan horse" that would keep the abuse of soring alive. The rally was put together by the All American Walking Horse Alliance, a group of horse owners, supporters and others.
Keith Dane, who handles horse protection issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said horses are being abused for the sake of a blue ribbon. He said he hopes the demonstration in D.C. will show people that the horses have a beautiful natural gait.
"Senators and Congressmen hold their future in their hands," he said.
By Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Washington Bureau