Changes are coming to how the USDA enforces the Horse Protection Act (HPA), with new rules concerning mandatory penalties in the Walking Horse industry and the process by which inspectors are licensed and trained.
Specific information regarding the penalty changes are expected to be published next week, said Dr. Stephen Mullins, industry veterinarian, but industry leaders say they had been expecting the change for some time.
According to a USDA spokesman, the federal agency is set to enhance its enforcement of the HPA this year, while increasing its oversight of the designated qualified person (DQP) training program. DQPs are walking horse industry inspectors who are tasked with inspecting horses, since the USDA inspectors cannot attend most horse shows.
The industry has been in the spotlight in recent weeks following the indictment of a prominent trainer accused of soring walking horses.
The T-G recently spoke to USDA spokesman Dave Sacks about the state of the industry.
When asked if there is a problem with soring in the walking horse industry, Sacks replied "one sore horse is one too many.
"Horses can certainly compete successfully as a result of patient, sound and humane training methods," he said.
Sacks said the minimum penalty protocol "would go a long way in ensuring consistency from event to event."
According to an item in the Walking Horse Report Wednesday, Dr. Rachel Cezar, USDA APHIS Horse Protection Coordinator, informed Horse Industry Organization (HIOs) representatives that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had signed the mandatory penalty rulemaking and it would be posted to the Federal Register within a week.
Even before the latest step to increase HPA enforcement, Sacks said the USDA had increased its oversight by attending 80 horse shows in 2011, compared with just 50 in 2010.
"... We are more thoroughly training our own inspectors," he said. "Our inspectors are now using thermography and digital radiology equipment to detect soring. And we will soon begin drug testing of horses to detect soring agents in their blood," Sacks said.
He added that the USDA "shares much common ground" with the walking and racking horse industry, stating that they "strive to ensure that only sound horses compete at shows.
"... We all want to make horse soring a thing of the past," he said.
The USDA is also collaborating with the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners "to promote the elimination of soring within their ranks of veterinarians," Sack stated.
In addition, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS) Animal Care Program is touring the country and holding HPA listening sessions, with one scheduled to take place in Murfreesboro on April 4.
Sacks also stated that APHIS is working on a proposed rule that would allow it to take control of the process in which industry inspectors, DQPs, are licensed and trained. DQPs inspect horses at the Celebration and many other shows throughout the year.
According to Sacks, USDA is doing this in response to an audit conducted in 2010 by the agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG), which provided several recommendations to improve upon existing practices.
The audit found that DQPs did not always inspect horses to effectively enforce the law and regulations, "and in some cases where they do find violations, they deliberately issue tickets to friends or family members of responsible individuals so that the responsible person could avoid receiving a penalty for violating the Horse Protection Act."
Sacks said that it was in the best interest of all involved -- including the horses -- "if the walking horse industry establishes an effective self-regulatory program."
"USDA inspectors cannot attend every event, so we need the HIOs and DQPs to be our on-the-ground partners in our shared vision of ending horse soring," he said.
In a recent letter to a Chattanooga newspaper, Mullins, who serves as the president of SHOW, the HIO with which the Celebration affiliates itself, stated that at last year's Celebration the compliance rate was over 98 percent, in cooperation with the USDA inspectors.
The T-G asked the USDA to further interpret that number.
"We don't use a compliance rate as a measure of success," Sacks said. "The complete elimination of soring remains our stated goal."
"The OIG audit shows that many of the DQPs can certainly improve their inspections, and the way we at USDA are approaching this is to put forth a proposed rule that would allow us to take control of the process in which DQPs are licensed and trained," Sacks reiterated.
The 2010 OIG audit stated that from 2005 to 2008, APHIS veterinarians were present at six percent of all horse shows, but Sacks explained to the T-G that in 2011, the USDA attended 10 percent of horse shows.
"Our inspectors often (also) conduct barn walk-throughs during horse shows, and we are in barns in certain special circumstances, such as if we are requested to be there by OIG during a particular enforcement operation," he said.
The recent soring investigation by the HSUS, which several industry members have said has an unfair agenda against the business and is not a valid source for information concerning the industry, claimed "stewarding" was also witnessed during its investigation. Stewarding is the practice of applying force to a horse's head or nose to try to reduce the level of the animal's reactions during inspections.
The T-G asked the USDA if they have witnessed any stewarding.
"Yes," Sacks responded.
Sacks was also asked to confirm or deny whether numbing agents are a problem.
"(They) are a significant problem," he said, but added the agents are detectable.
The USDA - APHIS spokesman said they enforce the Horse Protection Act consistently across the board, with their goal remaining the same -- "to eliminate the cruel and inhumane practice of soring horses."
"We will continue to monitor this industry and oversee the inspection work of the DQPs to ensure that sore horses cannot participate in shows, sales, exhibitions or auctions," he said.
Mullins, an industry veterinarian, was asked to respond to the news of the mandatory penalties to be imposed on the industry. Mullins said they are waiting for more specific information regarding the penalties (which is likely to be published next week, he said). However, Mullins did comment on the broad picture of the industry.
"There are some very good people in this industry that train their horses correctly," Mullins said. "It's time for those people to stand up ...."
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will hold a listening session on the Horse Protection Act from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. April 4 at the Doubletree Hotel, 1850 Old Fort Parkway in Murfreesboro.