Data released this week from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) shows that every horse randomly sampled at last year's Celebration tested positive for illegal substances.
Dr. Steve Mullins, the veterinarian speaking on behalf of the horse industry, explained that a number of the items found in the tests were common equine products such as shampoos and bug sprays, stating that an animal rights group was engaged in "a PR ploy," referring to the press release that included the data, which was released by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Mullins also said that some of the chemicals found on the horses by the USDA "are disturbing."
"We as an industry have got some problems," Mullins said. "But all of those chemicals that are listed as positive, are they illegal? According to the Horse Protection Act, they probably are," explaining that you can only have Vaseline, mineral oil and glycerin on a horse's hoof and pastern area.
The HSUS press release, issued Wednesday, stated that APHIS had conducted random testing at various Tennessee Walking Horse competitions.
"Most troubling, of the 52 horses tested at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the largest and most prominent walking horse show in the country, every single horse tested positive for illegal agents," the press release stated.
USDA spokesman Dave Sacks stated Thursday that they had received the HSUS petition, and would "evaluate it thoroughly."
"Our first step will be to share it with USDA's Office of the General Counsel, in order to measure it up against the Horse Protection Act regulations, so that we can properly determine if the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has the authority to act upon what HSUS has suggested in its petition," Sacks said.
Sacks also stated that when the USDA inspects horses, "we are looking for any signs of soring. Numbing agents are a significant problem, but we can and do detect them.
"USDA remains committed to eliminating all forms of horse soring," Sacks told the T-G. "That is our stated goal, and that is the reason the Horse Protection Act came into existence."
Mullins said that the USDA's swab test is so sensitive that substances such as shampoos, paint residue, bug sprays, medicines, as well as Vitamin E creams, are showing up on the lab results.
"Are they legal? By the strict letter of the law, they aren't legal," Mullins said. "We have to define and find a baseline of 'OK guys, how can we prevent these residues from being down on the horse's pastern areas,'" explaining the substances are allowed on the animal's back, but not its feet.
One of the topics that HIOs are looking into is would a horse test positive for an illegal substance "even though the substance detected is a soap or shampoo," Mullins said.
"Can you use soap to sore a horse?" Mullins asked. "Honestly, I don't know, some people say you can, but we also use soap to clean the horse."
Mullins admitted that some of the chemicals listed on the USDA's data spreadsheets "are disturbing."
"I can't defend them," he said. "I honestly can't defend them," but he added that the soaps and other chemicals were on the horse "innocently."
"The Trainer's Association is actively doing something at the present time ... to change so that we don't have horses with shampoos or bug spray residues ... or medicines ... whatever they need to change, we're trying to correct it," Mullins said.
HSUS's letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack stated that soring continues to be a standard industry practice, "and that the industry, through HIOs, simply cannot be relied upon to enforce the (Horse Protection) Act."
Mullins defended the industry by explaining industry HIOs charged with the inspection process when the USDA is not present have "no means" to do the swab tests or chemical analysis performed by the USDA, stating that it costs $250 per horse to do them.
"We don't have the resources to do it, neither do we have the means to do it, we are not trained to do that," he said.
The HSUS release stated the non-profit organization has written to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, asking that the use of the substances be treated as a felony.
However, Mullins also took issue with that request.
"It already is a felony," he said.
"That's just a PR ploy on their part," Mullins claimed.
According to a Walking Horse Report editor's note responding to the HSUS, "These kinds of stories are all that the public is seeing and, in the absence of a response from the industry, that is what they are led to believe."
The USDA announced last week its intent to change some penalties related to the industry. Specifics have not been revealed.
An APHIS listening session for feedback on the Horse Protection Program will be held from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday, April 4 at the Doubletree Murfreesboro Hotel, 1850 Old Fort Parkway. It is one of several sessions being held nationwide.