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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Fighting back: Some USDA inspectors unfair, say industry reps

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

John Bennett talks to the media before demonstating how a walking horse is inspected.
(T-G photo by Jim Davis) [Order this photo]
Celebration officials have gone on the offensive this week as they claim some U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are inspecting horses unfairly at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

John Bennett demonstrates how a walking horse is inspected during the press conference at the Celebration.
(T-G photo by Jim Davis)
Dr. Doyle Meadows, Celebration CEO, says he feels the USDA has retaliated against the horse show after walking horse industry leaders went above their heads in an effort to ensure a successful event.

"They are mad," Meadows said in a Monday interview with the Times-Gazette. "The industry has reached out to those in Congress for cooperation ... That has upset administration within APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency of the USDA)."

USDA response

The USDA refutes claims their organization is conducting unfair and subjective inspections.

"I can assure you that USDA has one and only one goal at the Celebration or any other horse show: to eliminate the cruel and inhumane practice of soring horses," said USDA spokesman Dave Sacks in an email to the Times-Gazette.

"Our regulations exist to ensure the welfare of the animals we regulate. Our inspectors do not falsely cite horses, and USDA fully stands behind the performance and conduct of our inspectors at the Celebration. We have no intentions to make any horse show less successful."

Citations criticized

From the left, Richard Wilhelm, Jeffery Howard, Stephen Mullins and John Bennett at the press conference Tuesday at the Celebration.
(T-G photo by Jim Davis)
Meadows said USDA citations are up, even though industry inspections -- administered by SHOW, the industry organization charged with overseeing inspections -- remain consistent. Industry swab tests, new to the show this year, have revealed no evidence of horse abuse thus far, Meadows said.

"We have horses that look phenomenal," Meadows said. "They've passed SHOW, USDA and swabbing. If that's our horse, I love him."

Dr. Stephen Mullins, president of SHOW, said at a press conference Tuesday at the Calsonic Arena the USDA has issued five times more citations at this year's Celebration.

He said some of the horses disqualified by the USDA passed inspection by SHOW HIO inspectors and renowned independent veterinarians. The USDA has the final say in who shows or who is disqualified for the remainder of the show.

Scar rule a factor

Mullins said the difference in opinions of SHOW inspectors and independent veterinarians versus the USDA inspection is mainly related to interpretations on the scar rule (see related story page 12A).

"In the first six days, USDA inspectors have issued over five times the number of scar rule violations that they issued last year over the entire 11-day show," Mullins said.

"Additionally, a local horse passed USDA inspection twice on Thursday and was found to be free of scars. On Friday, the same horse was disqualified under the scar rule, even though it is medically impossible to develop a scar on both feet within 24 hours."

Dr. John Bennett, a local veterinarian, presented two horses disqualified from this year's show to media on hand at Tuesday's press conference. Bennett said the horses were sound.

USDA cites Groover

On Monday night, USDA inspectors cited Winky Groover, a trainer who recently appeared in newspaper and television reports explaining what's being done to clean up walking horse shows.

Groover disputed the UDSA's finding.

Jennifer Baker, a spokesperson for the Celebration, said the trouble in Monday night's inspections came to a head when USDA inspector Dr. Ernest Johnson disqualified Groover's and three other horses at the same time.

Baker said the horses were sound.

"There was nothing wrong with them," she said. "...It was so out of control that (Dr. Steve) Mullins protested to Dr. Chester Gipson (deputy administrator for USDA-APHIS), so then other (USDA inspectors) started writing tickets."

Mullins protested again to Gipson, and from there, no more citations were issued.

Judge's decisions

Earlier in the show, Johnson disqualified entries in both equitation (where the rider is judged, not the horse) as well as the pony pleasure division for bilateral soring.

"These horses are not sore," Baker said. "The kids were freaking out and crying."

Following Monday evening's events, the Celebration felt it was necessary to hold a press conference to demonstrate their conflict with the USDA.

Swab tests

Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization, an industry group whose main purpose is to promote the horse, is funding a swabbing initiative where every entry is tested for chemicals used to sore horses or numb sore areas.

The tests are flown to Texas with results coming back within about 24 to 48 hours of shipment. As of Sunday evening, tests have been clean, the group said.

The USDA also conducts random swab tests, looking for any foreign substance according to Horse Protection Act regulations. Those results are not revealed for weeks.

Last year, all 52 of the horses randomly swabbed by the USDA showed substances, but industry insiders say many of the substances found last year were irrelevant -- such as shampoos and fly spray.

USDA delays results

"It is customary with our procedures at all horse shows that we do not release inspection statistics until the show has been completed," Sacks said.

"Right now, our inspectors are focusing on carrying out their work with professionalism and integrity. We will review their reports and post the appropriate data once the Celebration has concluded."

Baker explained the industry swab tests differ from the USDA's. Industry tests are more accurate in revealing sored horses, Baker says, because they have a different baseline that eliminates substances not indicative of abuse, such as hand creams, fly sprays and shampoos.

Show goes on

Despite the challenges the industry has faced this year, Meadows says he's pleased with the show.

"I couldn't be more pleased with entries and attendance," he said. "It's been phenomenal ... Saturday night we had more entries and attendance than (last year).

He said decent numbers "speak a lot on reform efforts being made by (walking horse) trainers and supported by The Celebration combined with the most intense inspection process in the history of the breed.

"I think we are doing especially well."

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