A Department of Agriculture representative who enforces the Horse Protection Act had critical comments for the local equine industry this past weekend.
Dr. Chester Gipson, Deputy Administrator for Animal Care with USDA-APHIS, met Saturday with members of the Walking Horse Owners' Association (WHOA) in Murfreesboro, telling members enforcement of the Act would be no different during the 2012 show season than it was last year.
But Gibson also told WHOA members that the Walking Horse industry had "no credible voice," warning that they are dividing themselves, and urging unity.
"Unity" was the idea behind a committee that was formed in December to look at issues related to the future of the breed in the show ring and to also discuss unification within the performance horse division.
But the group, made up of WHOA, the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA), Walking Horse Trainers' Association (WHTA) and The Celebration, has objected to any reduction of pads and action devices for walking horses, also opposing proposed mandatory penalties by the USDA.
According to the Walking Horse Report, Gibson said that the penalties, which he termed as the Uniform Penalty Protocol, is "hung up and I'm not quite sure when they will be completed. This process can take a long time and it has taken a lot longer than we thought."
Gipson was also quoted as being "surprised" by the feedback he has received in previous meetings with horse groups and individuals, telling WHOA members that he does "not have a hidden motive and I expect a certain level of distrust because I work for the government."
The USDA official stated that unification "is an industry initiative and is a totally different issue from pads and action devices and they are totally separate." But Gipson also urged the Walking Horse industry to unite behind a common goal.
"There is no credible voice within this industry and when someone doesn't like something they spin off and create their own group," Gipson was quoted as saying in the Walking Horse Report. "You are dividing and surrendering and we don't have to do anything to you, you are doing it to yourself."
He urged the industry to stop splintering saying, "there are more good resources in your industry than in any industry I know but they aren't being used effectively." However, Gipson was also quoted as being optimistic about the industry's efforts at unification.
Other topics the USDA official touched on were soring and pads and action devices, telling WHOA members that he had a responsibility to let the industry know what was on the horizon "especially when it may have an adverse effect on your industry."
Gipson stated that regulations state "that if certain things didn't change we would re-visit the action device and pad," adding that other credible groups were looking at the issue, urging the walking horse industry to do the same.
"The issue is open and we are going to re-visit but that doesn't mean anything will change," Gipson was quoted as saying. "You need to provide alternatives based on fact and not emotion. We are going to do what's best for the horse based on the best science."
Gipson reportedly said that the issue of horse soring "has become an animal welfare issue," explaining that groups such as the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association "have stepped up and become more active."
Trainers and the industry were complimented by the USDA official as to advancements made on the scar rule, with Gipson explaining when he took the job, the Horse Protection Act "wasn't being enforced, it was being ignored."
"You can't change overnight so we have taken a measured approach," Gipson told WHOA members. "I joke with some of the trainers I talk to that said, 'We can't do it' and tell them they did do it." Gipson also stated that scar rule adherence was "where it needs to be."
Gipson also spoke about two recommendations made in a 2010 audit of APHIS by the USDA's Office Of Inspector General: abolishing of the Designated Qualified Persons (DQP) industry inspection program and the proper identification of horses.
The audit also said APHIS needed to improve its program for inspecting show horses for abuse and penalizing violators, as well as ensuring that Horse Protection Act violators do not participate in shows while suspended.
"Doing away with the DQP program would be a disaster for the USDA and for the industry," he said, adding that the audit recommendation is that individuals serving as DQPs "do not need to have a conflict of interest."
"The primary area of enforcement should be within the industry, but the USDA will take on the responsibility of training and licensing the DQPs as part of this recommendation from the OIG," Gipson said.
Gipson also stated that the industry needs to address the issue of horses being identified properly, noting that the Justice Department had looked into the falsification of entries in several recent cases, saying "this is an opportunity for the industry to address this and look for solutions," suggesting that placing microchips in horses to identify them is a possible solution.
Also addressed by Gipson were the "Points of Emphasis," or rules for the Horse Protection Program, stating there isn't much room for confusion on the part of the USDA.
"It's the law, you don't have to sign on (to the points of emphasis), you just have to follow the law," Gipson said. "If anyone wants to challenge them, we cited the regulations behind each point."
Gipson also said that petitions for rule making "drive very little of what we do," explaining that he couldn't think of a petition that has driven any regulation.
"Petitions are not driving your community, the OIG Audit is driving it," he said, also clarifying that USDA initiates no regulation, they simply enforce it.
The USDA official also "laughed off the threat of litigation against him," the Walking Horse Report stated, quoting Gipson to say that "I'm used to being threatened (to be sued) so all I can say is bring it on and I'm not intimidated by it."
He also stated that the industry needs "a system where all horses are being checked by the same standard," pointing out that the industry needs to self-regulate and continue the theme of unity.
"United, you stand a better chance than divided," he said.
Gipson also said that the USDA was moving toward more transparency, explaining that was the motivation behind his previous visits in the Walking Horse industry as well as upcoming listening sessions.
"I have an open door policy and don't discriminate against anyone or any group," said Gipson. "We will focus our efforts on outreach, education and information sharing in an effort to try and let people know what is going on."