You’ve probably seen the emails or social media calls to action asking you to send a letter/fax/email to someone, either supporting or opposing a proposed law or other decision. Maybe you’ve even dropped a letter in a mailbox, or faxed, or clicked "send."

Do you ever wonder what happens to those missives? Does anybody actually read them?

It turns out that the feds do, at least some of the time.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke with Keith Dane, Director for Equine Protection at the Humane Society of the United States, about the organization’s undercover investigation of abuse at the stable of a prominent trainer of Tennessee Walking Horses. Self-regulation of the Walking Horse industry isn’t working, Dane said, and he suggested that the federal government assume full responsibility for inspection of animals and enforcement of the Horse Protection Act ("HPA").

Having the feds step in and take over might be a pipe dream, and even if realized might not be the best answer. Federal regulation of the Walking Horse industry, or any industry, comes with its own set of problems.

The United States Department of Agriculture doesn’t appear ready to take on full responsibility for regulating the Walking Horse industry, at least not yet. The USDA has taken an important step toward more effective enforcement of the HPA, however, by adopting a rule that should make things more consistent—and maybe more effective. The rule, which takes effect on July 9, requires uniform, minimum penalties for violation of the HPA rather than leaving the assessment of penalties to the discretion of individual organizations or associations.

Beyond the Press Release

The official summary of the final rule takes up about eight lines, the press release a few paragraphs. The final rule itself, which amends Section 9 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 11, is five pages long, but it takes 45 pages of heavy going to get there. The Supplementary Information that fills the substantial gap between the summary and the rule is a review of the comments—and the official comments about the comments—received by the USDA from May 27, 2011 (when the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register) through July 26, 2011.

Support for the proposed rule was overwhelming—and generic. Of the 28,249 comments received during the 60-day comment period, at least 27,349 (about 97 per cent) supported the rule. These comments, according to USDA, were "substantively identical form letters submitted by individuals who commented through an animal welfare advocacy group." A stack of paper 27,000-plus pages high is impressive in size but almost certainly mostly unread if page #1 is identical to page # 27,349.

The quick lesson from these numbers is this: if you’d like someone to actually read your comments rather than just count them, an individual letter or email probably is better.

The USDA divided the more-specific comments, most of which opposed the new rule, into 18 categories and discussed them separately. These comments included:

●The current system of self-regulation is working (no, it isn’t);

●The USDA lacks the statutory authority to require that private organizations impose minimum penalties for HPA violations (yes, it does);

●Penalties without due process of law is unconstitutional (the new rule mandates an appeals process);

●Mandatory penalties should be based on objective scientific evidence that a horse actually is sore rather than someone's opinion (the USDA welcomes more scientific studies but is satisfied that digital palpation is reliable);

●More effective enforcement would encourage exhibitors to take sored horses to "unaffiliated" shows without inspectors (the USDA already shows up at some unaffiliated shows and plans to attend more);

●It’s unfair to penalize multiple parties, such as the owner, trainer, and rider, for the same violation (the USDA revised the wording of the final rule to clarify that the mandatory penalties apply to anyone "responsible" for showing or auctioning a sored horse, thus casting a wide net);

●And so on, and so on.

Most bothersome were the commenters who said that the rule was a bad idea because eliminating sored horses would have a significant—and negative—effect on the Walking Horse industry.

The USDA report diplomatically said that it did not expect this to happen because people who do not violate the HPA will not be affected.

My thought is this: if a segment of the horse industry cannot survive without abusing the horses it depends on, then it shouldn’t survive.

Is it necessary—or even possible—to balance the economics of an activity with the welfare of its horses?