published Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Celebration losing fans amid soring flap

Jeffrey Howard, center, the communications director for theTennessee Walking Show Horse Organization, speaks at a news conference held at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration grounds while Dr. Richard Wilhelm, left, and Dr. Steve Mullins, the president of the lay-inspection group SHOW, look on Tuesday. The news conference was called to discuss concerns over the dramatic increase in the number of horses being ejected from competition by USDA inspectors over soring violations.
Jeffrey Howard, center, the communications director for theTennessee Walking Show Horse Organization, speaks at a news conference held at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration grounds while Dr. Richard Wilhelm, left, and Dr. Steve Mullins, the president of the lay-inspection group SHOW, look on Tuesday. The news conference was called to discuss concerns over the dramatic increase in the number of horses being ejected from competition by USDA inspectors over soring violations.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

SIGNS OF SORING

The Celebration's hands-on examination for soring consists of three components:

• An evaluation of the horse's movement

• Observation of the horse's appearance during inspection

• Physical examination of the horse's forelegs.

Additional scientific tests include:

• Leg swabbing by the horse industry to find signs of foreign substances such as caustic acids or numbing medications.

• Thermal imaging and X-rays by USDA to find sore "hot" spots and "cool" numbed spots and other problems.

Source: USDA, TWSHO

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Horse lovers in Shelbyville, Tenn., are reeling from empty stands and thinning numbers of horses in the arena in the final week of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

Celebration officials lashed out at U.S. Department of Agriculture animal inspectors Tuesday, claiming that government regulators in the first six days of this year's shows disqualified five times the number of horses for "scar-rule violations" as they cut last year during the entire 11-day event.

"In my opinion and in the opinion of these independent veterinarians with us here today, the USDA is wrongly disqualifying sound horses from the Celebration of 2012," said Steve Mullins, a veterinarian who heads the Celebration's hired lay inspector group. "And they are doing this by improperly interpreting the most subjective portion of the inspection process in the Horse Protection Act."

With just five days left in the 74-year-old signature Tennessee event, the accusations continued to grow more shrill among the proponents of the walking horse industry, proponents of sound horses, animal rights groups and federal regulators.

USDA spokesman Dave Sacks popped right back at the horse groups.

"Our inspectors do not falsely cite horses, and they do not target particular horses or riders. USDA fully stands behind the performance and conduct of all of our inspectors at the Celebration," he said.

He also labeled as untrue an assertion by the group that USDA declined to give it formulations or guidance for its initiative to perform swabbing tests for the presence of caustic acids or numbing agents. The swabbing is something it has touted as scientific testing rather than the subjective hands-on and sight inspections that are causing so much controversy. And the group says its swabbings -- which it formulated on its own -- have found no problems.

"This is not true," Sacks said. "USDA presented on the issue of our foreign substance tests at the Today Tennessee Equine Conference in Murfreesboro, Tenn., back in June. So our procedures and guidance were made public for all to see."

One horse owner who attended the news conference and inspection demonstration in Shelbyville on Tuesday tried to push the walking horse officials about why they thought the USDA was so tough this year.

"Do you think it has anything to do with SHOW suing the USDA?" asked Bob Medina.

Mullins said the lawsuit, filed after USDA adopted mandatory penalties for soring violations and required its lay inspector groups to do the same, "isn't really a lawsuit. It's a constitutional declaration." Neither Mullins nor other officials would speculate about USDA's increased disqualifications.

In addition to the lawsuit, SHOW has refused to adopt the new rules. Just weeks before the Celebration began, USDA began the administrative process of decertifying the group.

Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization, released a copy of a May 2010 email from a USDA supervisor, Rachel Cezar, to one of the inspectors.

The accompanying news release, listing Baker as the contact, is headlined:

"Shocking email reveals government inspector was reprimanded by supervisor for expressing his "hatred of horses."

The email counsels Earnest Johnson not to talk with show people anymore "about how we feel about the industry or horses. I hear several of us say when we are around each other that we hate horses, we know nothing about horses, or we are doing this for the money. No one may say this to someone in the industry, but even if we say it around our peers, it still may get back to the industry because no one wants to see us succeed."

Sacks said the email was part of an extensive Freedom of Information Act request.

"It is easy to take one email out of context and to misread the situation," he said.

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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