The scar rule and disturbing information
During the 2014 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, one thing was evident; the scar rule was being interpreted differently by the United States Department of Agriculture and the SHOW HIO. And since the show ended, media have reported that violations doubled and soring is still rampant in the Walking Horse industry. It's time to look at some facts.
First of all, there were no USDA scar rule violations at the Celebration. The government is alleging that there were but those cases have not been adjudicated and until they are the people involved are innocent until proven guilty. If the USDA operates as it has in the past, virtually all of these alleged violations will never be prosecuted because the scar rule is very subjective and will not pass muster in a court of law. A simple look at the historical number of alleged violations compared to prosecutions, successful or not, by the USDA dramatically bears this out.
Approximately 100 horses at the 2014 Celebration were alleged in violation of the scar rule by the USDA despite the fact that those same 100 horses passed inspections with USDA VMO's present almost 300 times in 2014. For the record, the USDA simply takes information on horses they allege have violated the scar rule and turn that over to be prosecuted. But at the same time they act as judge and jury with no recourse for the owner, by disqualifying the horse for that and any other class at the show. Whether or not they ever choose to prosecute, the owner is punished on the opinion of the USDA inspector.
The USDA found alleged violations on 51% of the horses they inspected when at no time in history, and specifically in 2014, has the percentage been remotely that high. Unfortunately, not one media outlet has asked the USDA to explain the large increase over last year's Celebration or shows held only weeks and months before.
The Walking Horse Report did ask that question and were told "We have not changed our inspection procedures. However, we are using more advanced technological tools to make sure we identify horses that are of concern for being sored and examining these horses closer to ensure that only sound horses showed during the Celebration." When questioned by The Report as to what new more advanced technological tools were used this year compared to last year's Celebration or during the 2014 season, they admitted there were no new "advanced technological tools" used at this Celebration or during the 2014 show season.
"APHIS has been utilizing the same technology as we used at the beginning of the year. If we make any change to the technology used or if a new technology is introduced, we will inform our stakeholders and regulated entities. APHIS is utilizing technology whenever possible when we attend inspections. There have not been any excessive changes throughout the year," stated Tanya Espinosa, Public Affairs Specialist, Legislative and Public Affairs, USDA-APHIS.
What is also disconcerting, the USDA admits it is looking "closer" at certain horses and it is targeting those horses through iris scans prior to examining. The proper procedure would be to examine the horse and then refer to the iris scan to positively identify the horse. But the iris scan also contains any alleged violation in the horse's past so the inspectors can make sure they don't pass a horse that was turned down previously.
This has been a consistent and recurring problem for the USDA and was an embarrassment to them and their inspectors. Checking the identity and alleged violation record of the horse prior to examining him has solved their problem. However USDA disagreed with this assertion when asked, "The data collected on the iris scanner does not directly disqualify a horse from exhibiting. It acts as a screening tool for our inspectors where we can focus our inspections on horses that have been found in violation multiple times. The iris scanner does not guarantee the horse will be in violation again."
Honors is a very high profile horse and worth looking at a little more closely. Honors has been turned down by one USDA VMO, Jeff Baker, the last three times he has shown with him present. Two of those violations were pre-show and one was post-show, meaning he got in to show and was cited for an alleged scar rule after he showed. Is Dr. Baker right and he is out on scar rule or are the DQPs that train with Dr. Baker and found the horse compliant those same three times right? Dr. Baker alleged a scar rule violation on Honors at the 2013 Celebration while the DQP's passed him.
After being disqualified from showing, Honors was taken to Auburn University Vet School and Dr. Jon Schumacher examined him. Here is an excerpt from his report, "I found a scar on the lateral aspect of the pastern on the right forelimb that was evidently the result of an injury the horse suffered at an early age (commonly referred to as a field scar which is not a HPA violation). I found no skin thickening or skin folds on either digit. After reading the HPA Compliance section of SHOW, Inc., I find that the horse has no skin lesions that should disqualify it from competition. In fact, other than a few areas alopecia on the palmar aspect of the pasterns and the scar on the right forelimb pastern, I find no skin lesions."
Since that time, much has transpired in the USDA between Dr. Rachel Cezar and Dr. Chester Gipson talking to the DQPs about Honors and even talking to the Edwards brothers, who train and show the horse, about showing Honors again. After those conversations, Honors was taken to the 2014 Pulaski Show, presented for inspection, passed, shown and won. Dr. Baker elected to inspect Honors and turned him down on scar rule, post-show.
Honors was taken to Louisiana State University for examination. Here is an excerpt from their report, "The skin of both front pasterns was visually and digitally examined by a non-biased board certified equine surgeon and a board certified veterinary dermatologist employed by the School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition multiple digital images of both pasterns were obtained. On visual inspection of the extensor (dorsal) surface of both pastern regions, there was no evidence of scarring, granuloma formation or any other pathology consistent with that described the USDA-APHIS publication "Understanding the Scar Rule" or the power point presentation entitled "USDA Horse Protection Program." Visual inspection of the flexor (palmar) surface of both pasterns failed to reveal evidence of thickening, folding, ridges, redness, moisture, or swelling of the skin."
Is Dr. Baker more qualified than the two veterinary schools that examined the horse or is he on a vendetta against this horse, owner and trainer? From those two examples it would appear the scar rule is simply too subjective to call on a consistent basis, a problem for sure but one that could be fixed if legislation for an objective inspection process passed. The industry supports that legislation.
But if you believe that the scar rule is too subjective and excuse Dr. Baker for making a mistake, Honors came to the 2014 Celebration. Prior to the show on the first Saturday night, Dr. Baker addressed the DQPs and asked them, "So which one of you is going to turn down Honors tonight?" With over 100 horses to be presented for inspection that night, it looks as if Honors is being targeted and will be turned down no matter his condition....and that is exactly what happened when Dr. Baker inspected him.
USDA press releases say that the scar rule violation is an indication of PAST soring or scarring. The Report took a look at 30 horses that were passed by SHOW and turned down by USDA at the 2014 Celebration. Those 30 horses showed 152 times in 2014 and passed pre-show inspection. The Humane Society of the United States says USDA can only attend less than 10% of the shows and the industry HIO is the fox guarding the hen house. A look at the facts disputes this contention. Of the 152 times those 30 horses showed, the USDA VMOs were present for 122 of those 152 times or 80% of the time. It is difficult to understand the USDA explanation of the scar rule being evidence of past soring or scarring, when they missed that diagnosis 122 times on 30 horses this year.
Those statistics prove the HSUS allegation of the fox guarding the hen house is a public relations deception by HSUS that has gotten traction in the media. The USDA VMOs can't consistently call the scar rule so clearly the rule is just too subjective to be called consistently and fairly.
Also, there is no denying that the USDA is targeting certain horses, owners and trainers. During the Southern Championships last year after the Celebration, Dr. Cezar found out Honors planned to show at the show in Georgia. She sent a text to the head DQP of SHOW, Mitchell Butler, and told him the DQPs needed to be sure to turn Honors down or "they would catch heck." She also said, "His scars won't go away. He won't pass" (obviously Auburn University disagreed with Dr. Cezar). Dr. Cezar didn't mention any of the other horses at the Southern Championships that had been turned down for scar rule previously and were present at the show. Singling out this horse is a clear cut case of targeting and reflects poorly on her and her superiors at the USDA.
Another exhibitor at this year's Celebration filmed the inspection of her horse. Dr. Clem Dussault ruled the horse out on scar rule and disqualified him. The owner asked Dr. Dussault to please show her the scar. He refused. Dr. Gipson, who is the VMOs superior, instructed Dr. Dussault to show the owner the scar. Dr. Dussault answered he would show it to her but she had to turn off her camera. She refused and he refused Dr. Gipson's order. The owner considered this a clear case of targeting and, if the horse was out on the scar rule, why did Dr. Dussault refuse Dr. Gipson's order to show the owner the scar?
Whether the USDA is targeting certain horses, horse shows or owners and trainers or the scar rule regulation is simply too subjective, clearly change is needed. Too many people, charities, communities and horses are being unfairly punished by the inconsistent application of a subjective regulation carried out by a department that clearly has a bias against the industry.
-- Jeffrey Howard is publisher of The Walking Horse Report.