(CN) – The 5th Circuit struck down a USDA rule aimed at penalizing horse owners who purposely injure their horses to achieve a gait prized at horse competitions.
Contender Farms, owned by Mark McGartland, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to block federal regulations aiming to crack down on cheaters who attempt to win horse shows by harming their horses.
Tennessee show horses have a distinctive high-stepping gait, achieved through extensive training. But it can also be achieved by illegal means by injuring the animal with harmful chemicals to get them to high step, a technique known as “soring.”
Soring is prohibited by the Horse Protection Act, which also authorizes the USDA to regulate the management of horse shows, and set licensing requirements for inspectors who examine horses for signs of soring.
In the attempt to achieve a consistent punishment for the practice, the USDA adopted a new regulation in 2012 requiring horse organizations adopt mandatory minimum suspension penalties for soring violators as a condition of participating in the department’s inspection program, a necessity for putting on a horse show.
However, the 5th Circuit ruled last week that the regulation overstepped the USDA’s authority.
“The suspensions target participants in Tennessee walking horse events like Contender Farms and McGartland, and they are as much objects of the Regulation as the HIOs [horse industry organizations] themselves,” Judge E. Grady Jolly said, writing for the three-judge panel. (Emphasis in original.)
The regulation states that if an inspector discovers a violation, individuals responsible for showing the horse, allowing entry of the horse into a show, or selling the horse must all be suspended.
“Although participants in horse shows have always been subject to regulations from both HIOs and the USDA, the USDA has now taken intrusive steps into the private scheme to strengthen the penalties that HIOs must levy against those found to sore horses,” the 23-page opinion said.
While a horsing organization may decline to hire USDA-approved inspectors, it must then accept liability for failing to disqualify a sored horse, even if management was unaware the horse was sore, a choice very few organizations make, according to the judgment.
“The plain language of the HPA suggests that Congress intended a private horse inspection system. This statutory regime does not support the USDA’s position that Congress authorized it to promulgate the regulation, which requires private parties to impose government-mandated suspensions as an arm of HPA enforcement,” Jolly concluded. (Emphasis in original.)
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