published Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Tennessee walking horse inspection dispute grows

A rider and horse compete at a walking horse show Saturday in Pulaski, Tenn.
A rider and horse compete at a walking horse show Saturday in Pulaski, Tenn.
Photo by Alyson Wright.
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SORING BY STATE

Since 1986, the USDA has tallied 9,777 Horse Protection Act suspensions against Tennessee walking horse owners, trainers and handlers. More than one-third went to Tennessee competitors, though the USDA records include handlers from 38 states. The top 10 states are:

• Tennessee: 3,319

• Kentucky: 1,292

• Alabama: 681

• Mississippi: 490

• North Carolina: 444

• Georgia: 365

• South Carolina: 281

• Virginia: 231

• Texas: 215

• Missouri: 176

Source: USDA, Friends of Sound Horses

The question of whether federal horse show regulators will reject the inspector group that oversees the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration appears headed for a showdown.

"At this time, nothing is guaranteed in terms of SHOW's authority to preside over the Celebration," according to Dave Sacks, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Horse Protection Act that is aimed at preventing the abuse of walking horses in training and showing.

The Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., is the $1.4 billion walking horse industry's largest and premier event. SHOW -- short for Sound Horse, Honest Judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly -- is the industry-led inspection group for the Celebration, and it has balked at adopting the new, toughened penalties that took effect July 9 to prevent soring -- the use of chemicals and objects of pain to exaggerate the "big lick" gait that helps walking horses win competitions.

David Howard, a board member of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, said a lawsuit filed last month over the USDA's new rules is "on track" and he hopes the suit will be heard before the USDA takes any action to reject -- or decertify -- the SHOW group.

"We intend to stick with our position," Howard said. "We're not going to file a lawsuit [about the new rules] and then sign it."

To enforce the 40-year-old Horse Protection Act, the USDA trains and oversees inspectors from 12 horse groups, SHOW, the Kentucky Walking Horse Association, the Spotted Saddle Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Associations and others. The horse industry organizations, or HIOs as they are called, become the enforcement arm of the thinly stretched USDA inspectors when they check horses at shows for signs of soring.

The suit questions the constitutionality of USDA's new rules. The Celebration and SHOW contend the mandatory penalties don't allow for "due process appeals." They also say there are many shows that are never inspected because they are not affiliated with industry-led inspector groups, but the oversight is unfair.

Critics of the industry say the new rules must be applied to owners as well as trainers, and the industry fears a withdrawal of moneyed owners who've been unaware of or worn blinders to soring.

On July 19, the USDA notified SHOW and four other horse industry groups that their inspectors faced decertification unless they filed amended rule books reflecting the new rules within five days. Since then, two of the five inspector groups have complied, leaving only three outside the corral.

SHOW is largest of the inspection groups.

Reining in trouble

Aside from the lawsuit, Howard said the group also will use the USDA's procedures for dealing with decertification questions, which include an appeal clause.

"Obviously we would appeal it," Howard said of USDA's revocation process. "I don't know of anybody who has the power to tell us we can't use them [the SHOW inspectors]."

In recent months, Tennessee law and public opinion have been affected by reported abuse of Tennessee walking horses.

The shift gained momentum this spring with a federal 52-count indictment in Chattanooga of Jackie McConnell and three other trainers and assistants from Tennessee. McConnell, a champion trainer and a former walking horse trainer of the year, was charged with violations of the Horse Protection Act and falsification of records.

In May, a Humane Society of the United States video aired on national television showing McConnell abusing a horse.

On Tuesday, USDA's Sacks said federal regulators and SHOW officials are communicating, but it's unclear what schedule future USDA actions might take.

"The timeframe for the appeals process is unknown," Sacks said.

Celebration CEO Doyle Meadows said if SHOW is decertified before the Celebration, then event officials will hire inspectors from one of the groups that still is certified.

And certainly, he said, the USDA would be on hand to oversee the inspectors -- whoever they are.

"USDA is always here. Every year," Meadows said.

Contact Staff Writer Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6346.

about Pam Sohn...

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, ...

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