Bob Blackwell examined thousands of horses last year as one of about 160 lay inspectors charged with stopping the practice of soring, a training method that uses chemical burns and painful shoeing to exaggerate a horse’s gait.
Mr. Blackwell, a retired Missouri farrier and businessman, said he doesn’t understand why some walking horse trainers and owners say the USDA-required inspections are inconsistent and rules are hard to understand. "We all train at the same combined training sessions every year. Last time (in February) it was at Shelbyville," he said. "It’s really clear."
A USDA analysis of inspection data shows inconsistencies but indicates the disparities may occur within the horse industry, not the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 2004 and 2005, USDA’s analysis found the violation rates of lay inspectors in fourwalking horse groups increased 10 to 23 times when USDA veterinarians were present. The USDA does not identify the horse organizations.
"The numbers speak for themselves," said Darby Holladay, a spokesman with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The USDA works with the horse groups beyond annual training sessions, offering pamphlets, online help and quarterly question-and-answer opportu- nities, Mr. Holladay said.
"This is the most transparent process there could be," he said. The federal Horse Protection Act requires the inspections. However, when the law was enacted in the 1970s, Congress provided a yearly allocation of "no more" than $500,000 to carry out the tens of thousands ofhorse inspections required each year at hundreds of shows and sales nationwide.
USDA complies by delegating the initial responsibility for those inspections to ninewalking horse show groups called Horse Industry Organizations.
The organizations appoint — and USDA trains — the lay inspectors, who have authority to write citations, or "tickets" to those whose horses are found in violation of soring bans and other regulations.
The federal agency oversees each group’s inspectors with five veterinary medical officers employed by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
But officials in the walking horse industry, burned by this year’s controversy that left the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration championship undecided, have been very vocal about inspection "inconsistencies."
David Pruett, president of the Walking Horse Owners Association and chairman of the National Horse Show Commission, blasted the USDA last month at a listening session inChattanooga.
"There’s an obvious problem when horses pass inspection ... one night, then fail the inspection two nights later," he said. The National Horse Show Commission, the primary show organization in Tennessee for walking horse competitions — including the Celebration’s national championship in Shelbyville — is the largest horse industry organization and has about 35 lay inspectors.
A smaller horse industry group, Friends of Sound Horses, also has analyzed USDA inspection records for a different time period — 2001-04. Unlike USDA, Friends identified thehorse groups with disparities.
According to a news release posted on the Friends’ Web site, the group’s analysis found that Mr. Pruett’s National Horse Show Commission inspectors found 730 percent more violations with USDA watching than they did when USDA overseers weren’t around.
The commission’s rate of violations has steadily increased "to a difference of 1,180 percent more violations in 2004 when the USDA is present, compared to 440 percent more violations in 2001," according to the Friends’ statement.
Mr. Pruett could not be reached Friday to comment on the disparity. Lonnie Messick, the commission’s executive vice president who oversees the commission’s lay inspectors, also could not be reached for comment. Secretary/Treasurer Rachel Reed, declined comment.
Mr. Blackwell, who inspects shows for Friends and the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association, would not say why some lay inspectors for other horse groups cite fewer violations when USDA veterinarians aren’t around.
"You’ll have to ask them," he said.
Mr. Blackwell said he believes some of the organizations are crying "inconsistency" in an effort to get the Horse Protection Act weakened. He pointed to Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s recent letter asking USDA officials to review some industry-backed legislation.
"What bothers me most is that this has been a law for 37 years, and people have constantly tried to find political ways around it," he said. "I hate to see people who, when they can’t comply with the law or don’t want to, they want to change it."
Mr. Blackwell said he will continue to work inspections, not for the $225 a show he usually receives, but because he cares about horses.
"I believe in the law," he said. "It (soring) is not going away." E-mail Pam Sohn at email@example.com
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...