“Big lickers” kicked, but Congress kicked back
WASHINGTON D.C.––Winning increasingly often against initially steep odds, BillyGoBoy and friends opposed to soring horses to make them step higher appear likely to enjoy the last horse laugh over the walking horse show industry.
Walking horse shows have been infamously dominated for decades by trainers who––defying the federal Horse Protection Act of 1970––have been caught deliberately and severely irritating the hooves and legs of horses to make them step higher in the artificial gait called the “big lick,” the equestrian equivalent of a goose-step.
BillyGoBoy, the social media screen name adopted by semi-retired attorney, horse rescuer, and former walking horse breeder Clant Seay, 71, in a multi-year grassroots campaign against soring, has attracted more than 7,450 Facebook followers and growing numbers of volunteers to picket “big lick” horse shows.
Until recently, however, most of the big money and influential political connections appeared to be on the side of the “big lick” trainers, breeders, and exhibitors.
Now, even before losing recent political showdowns in Congress and the White House, the “big lickers” appear also to be losing money hoof-over-stacked-horseshoes in the riding arenas of the rural South, the longtime hub of the walking horse business.
“Big lickers” had friends in the White House
The “big lick” walking horse industry had friends enough in the White House, at least early in U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure, BillyGoBoy recalled, “to stop a new federal regulation from going into effect which would have removed the use of pads and chains,” commonly used to help make walking horses high-step, along with soring tactics.
Two weeks after that, walking horse industry influence appeared to be responsible for the USDA deleting web site access to Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement reports.
(See Did Trump kill rules to protect walking horses?), Is Protect the Harvest behind USDA purge of Animal Welfare Act data? and Could soring horses leave top Republicans limping in red-state Tennessee?)
USDA actions “do not meet requirements”
But the “big lickers” proved not to have friends enough in Congress to win the battle over what was included in the final version of the fiscal 2018 U.S. federal budget, which Trump signed into law on March 23, 2018.
Instead, the omnibus budget act recounted, “On February 3, 2017, USDA restricted the public’s access to the search tool for the Animal Care Inspection System, saying it needed to conduct a comprehensive review of the information on its website. USDA is now posting heavily redacted inspection reports that make it difficult in certain cases for the public to understand the subject of the inspection, assess USDA’s subsequent actions, and to evaluate the effectiveness of its enforcement.
“USDA’s actions to date do not meet the requirements,” the omnibus budget act stipulated, of federal law restated by Congress in a July 2017 resolution directed specifically at the USDA, “that the online searchable database should allow analysis and comparison of data and include all inspection reports, annual reports, and other documents related to enforcement of animal welfare laws.
“USDA is directed to comply”
“USDA is directed to comply with these requirements,” the omnibus budget act ordered, “and is reminded that as part of its oversight responsibilities, Congress has the right to make any inquiry it wishes into litigation in which USDA is involved. USDA is directed to respond to any such inquiries fully.”
The omnibus budget act language was applauded both by animal advocacy organizations and by organizations representing animal use industries, including the National Association for Biomedical Research, which calls itself “the unified voice for the scientific community on legislative and regulatory matters affecting laboratory animal research.”
But representatives of the “big lick” walking horse industry had little to say about the directive to the USDA to again make enforcement reports public.
More for horses in federal budget
Other horse use industry representatives were also quiet about further provisions of the 2018 omnibus budget act which, as Pat Raia of The Horse summarized, ensure that “Horse processing plants will remain shuttered, the Bureau of Land Management cannot sell wild horses without reservation, and the USDA Animal & Plant Inspection Service will receive additional funds to enforce the Horse Protection Act.”
The $8,000 increase in the $705,000 Horse Protection Act enforcement appropriation may not go far, but signifies that Congress favors active federal inspection over a USDA proposal, floated in January 2018, which would turn over most Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act inspection responsibilities to animal industry organizations.
Horse Protection Act enforcement has already long been done chiefly by designated industry representatives, whose frequent failure to identify violations and seek penalties––noted by a 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General audit––led to the flagrant disregard of the law exposed and protested by BillyGoBoy.
No “big lick” show in Lynchburg
BillyGoBoy and friends meanwhile celebrated the cancellation of a “big lick” walking horse show formerly held each year in Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the Jack Daniels distillery.
“We had targeted the Lynchburg ‘big lick’ show to protest,” BillyGoBoy posted to Facebook on March 17, 2018. “That won’t be necessary now. Instead, animal welfare advocates will protest the “big lick” horse show at Manchester in Coffee County, Tennessee.”
Previously, BillyGoBoy said, “We have asked the public to boycott ‘big lick’ cruelty in Columbia, Tennessee, and at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee. The response has been remarkably successful. We can’t imagine Manchester wanting the attendance at its annual Bonaroo Music Festival to be adversely impacted by becoming known all over the world as a community which hosts an event that features cruelty to walking horses.”
The Lynchburg walking horse show foundered about 90 days after cancellation of the Gulf Coast Charity Horse Show in Panama Beach, Florida, which had been held for 19 years, but was the scene of demonstrations led by BillyGoBoy in both 2016 and 2017.
What else is in the budget?
As well as calling for restoration of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement reports to the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service web site, the 2018 omnibus budget act allocates $30.8 million, $2 million more than in 2017, for Animal Welfare Act enforcement.
Language which would have authorized hunting methods including baiting grizzly bears and killing wolves, black bears, and coyotes at their dens on National Park Service land was deleted from the final version of the omnibus budget act, along with a provision that would have removed wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
USDA might still balk
The 2018 omnibus budget act language may not by itself mean that Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement reports will be promptly reposted.
The USDA, still under the direction of many of the same Trump appointees who took the information offline, may respond slowly or not at all to the Congressional directive, obliging litigation or further legislation to enforce the Congressional intent.
Anticipating a courtroom fight, the Humane Society of the U.S. on March 21, 2018––two days before Trump signed the omnibus budget bill––sued the USDA for failing to provide adequate information in response to a 2017 Freedom of Information Act request.
Inspection records totally blacked out
HSUS had requested “records of inspections at three puppy mills in Ohio and at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia,” explained HSUS president Kitty Block.
“It was months later, and only after a threat to sue the USDA” Block said, “that we finally received the requested documents. All relevant information, including the inspection dates, the number and species of animals at the facilities, and even the entire substance of the inspection reports, including whether or not there were any apparent AWA violations, was completely blacked out.
“The USDA also withheld more than 600 photographs and nearly a dozen videos obtained in connection with AWA inspections that HSUS had requested, citing privacy concerns,” Block said.