MURFREESBORO -- USDA officials urged Tennessee Walking Horse organizations Wednesday to unite and speak with one voice, while those in the local equine industry were equally united in opposing a proposed ban on pads and "action devices."
Officials from the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS) Animal Care Program held a three-hour listening session at the Doubletree Hotel to hear feedback from walking horse trainers and owners.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely)
Looking ahead, Dr. Rachel Cezar, USDA APHIS Horse Protection Coordinator, said the government is looking toward changes, but before those are made, the USDA wanted to get the industry's input, which was the reason for the listening session, the eighth that had been held this year.
With only one exception, all who gave an opinion were against the proposed banning of action devices and pads in the Walking Horse industry.
Winky Groover, a long-time trainer, said that many in the industry had done an excellent job in getting rid of soring in the business, saying that the government should monitor the inspection process of each Horse Industry Organization (HIO) to make sure that inspections have consistency.
"Pads and action devices do not sore horses, unscrupulous people do," Groover said.
Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association President Marty Irby also stated they were firmly against any reduction of the action devices and pads, saying that the survival of their industry relies mainly on the performance horse.
Irby said that the compliance rate in the industry is at 98.53 percent, while the USDA is only able to attend six percent of the shows. He also pointed out that the industry had formed a unity committee last November and that HIOs are standardizing shoeing and showing standards, as well as inspection training.
But Irby said a major problem were people who participate in events that are unregulated by the HIOs, which makes the industry incapable of regulating them due to the lack of any legal authority, and they have no way to make sure they are shown in the manner that the HPA demands.
"Those horse shows that are unaffiliated, uninspected, are the bottom end of this industry, and it works its way all the way to the top," he said.
Irby said that the USDA "has failed miserably" in cracking down on those unregulated shows which he said have crippled the Walking Horse industry.
Irby also said it was impossible to get 100 percent compliance with the HPA, saying that would be like everyone on the road all following the speed limit. He also urged the elimination of any conflicts of interest with the Designated Qualified Persons (DQP) program, and said the USDA should make sure that the HIOs get rid of the conflicts.
Irby added that scientific studies have indicated that action devices and pads cause no harm to the horses, citing a study from Auburn University.
Cezar said later in the meeting that the USDA was working on contracting with a data mining firm to be able to locate the unaffiliated shows, adding that they try to attend the ones of which they are aware.
Dr. Chester Gipson, deputy administrator for animal care with USDA-APHIS, also spoke during the second part of the meeting, saying that the USDA was planning on taking responsibility for the licensing and training of the DQPs to prevent conflicts of interests, as was recommended by the OIG audit.
"What we have been trying to do is to help the industry self-regulate," he said. One audience member asked the USDA when the Walking Horse industry would be able to outgrow the "sins of the past."
Gipson repeated what he said last fall that the industry needs to work together and "stop fighting among themselves." He also said that he had received about 200 emails concerning animal welfare issues.
Dr. Stephen Mullins, president of the SHOW Horse Industry Organization (HIO), with which The Celebration and other major shows affiliate, said the industry was close to achieving its goal, but that there had been over 600 unaffiliated shows in 2011 alone, and those were just the ones advertised on the Internet, leading him to wonder how many more actually took place.
"Overbearing regulatory activity by the HIO and the USDA has simply driven more of these shows underground," Mullins said. He also said he had attended one of the unsanctioned shows recently and that 20 of the 22 he looked at were not clean enough to be an affiliated show.
Mullins said that all horses should be inspected the same way and held to the same standards, adding that this had not been the case with horses in Tennessee.
He also said that the USDA was "constantly changing the bar" while the HIOs were trying to stay in compliance, saying that SHOW is trying to clean up the industry.
"If the USDA would simply get out of our way, we could do a better job," Mullins said. "Each day I spend working on regulatory crap, is another day wasted where I can be working on this industry."
Local veterinarian Dr. Jim Baum said there has been a lot of improvements and that the industry can self-regulate, saying that inspections have improved over the past four years, and that the USDA needs to go after the renegade trainers who participate in the unregulated shows.
Ben Craig, representing the Shelbyville/Bedford County Chamber of Commerce, told officials how much funding for local civic organizations depends on the horse shows that come to Shelbyville, saying that the Celebration contributes $40 million to the local economy, warning that "bad apples will ruin the whole bunch."
Ty Irby said that the Walking Horse was in much better shape than those of other breeds, wondering why the USDA checks the high profile events, and not the unregulated shows, also questioning the severity of the penalties handed out.
Walking horse enthusiaist Nathanael Jackson was the lone voice in the crowd stating he supported the ban on action devices.