Group seeks alternative horse protection measures

photo Frame captures from video from a Humane Society of the United States investigation show the measures taken to produce the exaggerated stride of Tennessee Walking Horses. In the video, horses are struck with clubs, shocked and have their hooves treated with chemicals and mechanical devices.

NASHVILLE - Even though it's complying with new federal regulations, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration will continue working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create more objective testing of horses, the head of the group said.

At issue is a bill that would only allow USDA inspectors to work horse shows, eliminate the tall pads and leg chains in performance division and increase penalties for Horse Protection Act violations such as soring, the act of intentionally injuring a horse's front legs to make it step higher.

Celebration CEO Mike Inman told The Tennessean that the industry will support alternative legislation to protect both horses and the sport. He called the 95 percent compliance rate "outstanding."

"That's especially considering the subjectivity of the inspection process and the differing of opinions," Inman said. "We hope to continue efforts working the USDA to create more objective testing."

Radiology, thermography and blood tests are among measures touted.

"I think the public, even the local public, has come to realize that much of what the Celebration presents is not real or true," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. "It's based on the falsehood that these horses are all sound, and that all the sore ones are being kept out."

Last month, the organization that sanctions the Celebration decided to adopt the minimum soring penalties proposed by the USDA.

Shelbyville-based SHOW HIO is a USDA-certified agency that show operators hire to inspect horses and punish trainers for signs of abuse.

The organization and at least two other parties sued the USDA last year over the penalties, arguing the new regulations violated horse trainers' rights to due process.

But SHOW said it now supports the penalties and won't appeal the decision of a federal judge, who in July ruled in favor of the government.

The federal Horse Protection Act prohibits transporting or showing a sored horse. Under the USDA regulations, a first-time offender could be suspended a minimum of two weeks up to a year, depending on the severity of the violation.

The penalties were enforced at the recent 11-day Celebration in Shelbyville.

The USDA reported that, as of Friday, 92 of 1,814 horses inspected -- 5 percent -- were disqualified for Horse Protection Act violations. One of those was Honors, a black stallion and a favorite to win it all Saturday. His exit opened the field for other front-runners, including He's Vida Blue, trained by Chad Williams.

Twenty-nine of the 30 horses he showed during the Celebration made it through going into Saturday night. USDA inspectors told him they found scarring on the one that didn't, Williams said. Williams' veterinarians disagreed.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Williams said. "There are some things that are subjective. We start the first of the year and do the best we can do to take care and look out for the welfare of the horse."