Three of this year's seven Celebration judges have each been cited with soring violations in years past, records show. Industry leaders say the soring inspections are subjective and scars noted on horse's legs could be from past, not current, abuse.
With the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration less than a month away, federal animal regulators are moving to decertify five of the 12 horse industry organizations that are supposed to help them inspect for abuse.
Chester Gipson, deputy director of animal care for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the five haven't adopted the government's new toughened minimum penalties rule for exhibitors of walking horses that are found to show signs of soring - the use of chemicals and objects or pain to exaggerate the high-stepping gait of walking horses.
The action signals the agency isn't about to back off from a campaign aimed at ending abuses in the walking horse industry.
The drive gained momentum this spring with a federal 52-count indictment in Chattanooga of Jackie McConnell and three other trainers and assistants. McConnell, a former walking horse trainer of the year, was charged with violations of the Horse Protection Act and falsification of records.
The public was electrified a few months later when a Humane Society of the United States video aired on national television showed McConnell abusing a horse.
Now USDA's letters have left some wondering if another, compliant inspector group or the USDA itself might wind up overseeing the Celebration.
If so, the premiere event of an industry that contributes $1.4 billion in economic impact in Tennessee might look very different this year.
Already the public seems to be cooling to the new image of walking horses once pointed to with pride as a Tennessee symbol.
Today in Shelbyville, Tenn., anti-soring advocates plan a rally at the Calsonic Arena -- home of the National Walking Horse Celebration, said Teresa Bippen, a board member for the Friends of Sound Horses, another horse organization that has fought soring and accepted the USDA's new rules.
Bippen said she finds it troubling that the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration's industry inspection group is balking at new rules intended to protect horses.
"I think it's a black mark for the whole industry. If they really wanted to do something to protect the horses, why is this a problem?" she said.
The answer may lie in the way the new rules broaden the field of people who may be cited or prosecuted.
Because owners now may be cited, they might lose the right to show any of their horses for extended periods.
"That will shrink the pool of exhibitors," Bippen said.
And that would disrupt the economic engine that walking horses have supplied in Middle Tennessee for decades.
To enforce the 40-year-old Horse Protection Act, USDA trains and oversees lay inspectors from 12 horse groups, including Sound Horses, Honest Judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly (SHOW); the Kentucky Walking Horse Association; the Spotted Saddle Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association 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.
Now USDA is asking each group of lay inspectors to amend their rule books to reflect the toughened regulations and minimum penalties. Each group had a deadline of June 9 to send a copy of its amended rule book to USDA.
A July 19 USDA letter to the Celebration's lay inspector group, named SHOW, and four other noncompliant groups reads in part:
"If SHOW HIO does not rectify its noncompliance ... or adequately explain its noncompliance to the satisfaction of the Department within five business days from receipt of this letter, SHOW will receive notice of the date that the SHOW HIO DQP program certification has been revoked."
SHOW is the short name of Sound Horse, Honest Judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly. Like all 12 of the industry groups, it is made up of horsemen and horsewomen who participate in shows but who also are certified by USDA to inspect for signs of soring and cite violators. The civilian inspectors are called designated qualified persons -- DQPs, for short.
SHOW and the Celebration, both headquartered in Shelbyville, have balked at adopting the new, toughened soring penalties that took effect July 9. The new penalties must apply to horse owners, not just trainers.
The Celebration, a major economic driver in Tennessee with its 11 days of shows every August, also has challenged the new rules in a federal lawsuit claiming they are unconstitutional because not all shows involve HIO inspector groups.
"We have serious concerns about the USDA's new rule," said Steve Mullins, a veterinarian who heads SHOW.
He said SHOW contends that soring trainers can show horses at other events not affiliated with an HIO group.
"We have reached out to the USDA to discuss how to partner in imposing stringent penalties, something that we currently already do. We look forward to working with the USDA to reach our common goal of ridding the industry of soring trainers," he said.
"It's unclear" whether federal appeal rules will mean SHOW still can conduct checks for the Celebration's national walking horse championship contests that begin Aug. 22 and end Sept. 1, according to Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. Dane has led a crusade for better enforcement of the 40-year-old Horse Protection Act, which prohibits soring.
USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said it's too early to say how the timing will play out for the Celebration.
On Friday, he said one of the five groups that had received the decertification warning has since filed its revised rule book. That organization was the Spotted Saddle Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association, also headquartered in Shelbyville, Tenn.
When federal horse welfare inspectors proposed mandatory minimum penalties for Tennessee walking horse abuse, they based their decision on some startling numbers pulled from their own records.
In recent years, USDA attended only about 7 percent of all horse shows, but when USDA was present, the horse inspection organizations wrote far more "tickets" -- citations for soring.
In fact, shows with USDA attendance accounted for 50 to 80 percent of all soring violations.
USDA's letter states that the industry inspection organizations will have 30 days to appeal any revocations.
All citizen inspector licenses with decertified organizations will expire 30 days later unless the licenses are transferred to a group that has remained certified, the letter states.