Sohn: We must help Tennessee walkers, because USDA won't

Sohn: We must help Tennessee walkers, because USDA won't

September 7th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / A Tennessee walking horse and its rider cast a shadow on the walls around the competition are of the arena during the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration this year.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

One week ago tonight, a beautiful dapple gray horse named I'm Mayhem became the World Grand Champion Tennessee Walking Horse for 2019. The horse's trainer and rider, Rodney Dick, was allowed to train and show the horse despite the fact that he's a known violator of the Horse Protection Act — the more than 40-year-old law that is supposed to, but doesn't, protect Tennessee Walking Horses from being "sored" to produce the exaggerated "big lick" gait for which they have come to be known.

Not only was it general knowledge at the Celebration that Dick is a violator, but it also was known that on Oct. 1 he is set to begin an 18-month U.S. Department of Agriculture suspension for those violations.

"Although he's been a serial violator of the Horse Protection Act (HPA) for decades, Dick was allowed to compete on the main stage," according to Marty Irby, the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association in Lewisburg, Tennessee.

"It turns out that Dick has very recent violations of injuring the feet of horses — a practice known as horse "soring" — but USDA still allowed him to compete with the punishment conveniently taking effect after he got to show his horse at the industry's main event," says Irby, noting that Dick and USDA officials signed a consent decision to that effect on Dec. 20, 2018.

In an email essay, Irby calls it "a travesty" that the suspension was delayed for nearly nine months to allow Dick to appear at The Celebration and participate in the high-profile event. Dick also was fined $2,200.

But that's not all. According to the Humane Society of the United States, Herbert Derickson, whose horse won second place, will begin a five-year federal disqualification beginning in September 2020, stemming from no less than 26 alleged violations. Gary Edwards, who rode the horse that won third place, will start serving a three-year disqualification in 2022.

And it's not the first time.

We wrote about a similar situation just after the 2017 Celebration, when Shelbyville trainer Bill Callaway's trainer license was suspended for eight months just 24 hours after he and his horse, Gen's Black Maverick, became World Grand Champions. Callaway also was fined $1,100 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

During the suspensions, trainers are disqualified from showing, exhibiting or entering any horse, directly or indirectly through any agent, employee or otherwise in any show, exhibition, sale or auction. But once the suspension is up, and the paltry price-of-doing-business fine is paid, they are free to return to tradition.

What's wrong with this picture?

Irby and other animal advocates have a one-word answer: Politics.

"Poor enforcement and delayed sentencing seem to be the new normal at USDA. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his own Office of Administrative Law Judges have agreed to dozens of consent decisions with serial violators of the Horse Protection Act. Some of the key players in the industry have been cited but their suspensions don't take effect until 2022! Justice delayed, as the old saying goes, is justice denied," Irby writes.

Neither soring nor ignoring soring began with Donald Trump, but the Trump administration signaled its tolerance for the animal cruelty right from the start in January 2017. One of its first directives was to nix a new USDA rule that banned the use of stacks and chains on horses' feet in shows.

Irby says the scale tipped when the Trump administration tapped Brian Klippenstein, the former head of Protect the Harvest — a political group focused exclusively on thwarting animal welfare reforms — to head the transition team at USDA. As soon as Klippenstein assumed his post, Irby says, the USDA dropped the new rule before it even took effect. Irby and other animal rights groups also have noticed that USDA inspections at shows have dropped off significantly.

"Informants on the grounds of the [Celebration] horse show reported that numerous horses' stacked shoes were also found with sheets of heavy lead inside them" — a new technique trainers are using to add weight and exacerbate the pain caused by chemical soring, Irby writes. "In 2019, soring abusers are brazenly flouting the law and counting on the USDA personnel to twiddle their thumbs as trainers torture horses."

There is way around this. Congress.

We already have bipartisan and widely supported legislation that promises to end — finally — the inhumane practice of horse soring. This legislation, known as the PAST Act, would close the loopholes in the Horse Protection Act. PAST was originally introduced seven years ago in 2013. This year it has 345 co-sponsors across both chambers of Congress, yet its passage in the House this summer marked its first-ever vote. The bill passed the House in July by a vote of 333 to 96. Now it is being held hostage in the Senate by Mitch McConnell, whose state of Kentucky is also a "big lick" state.

Controversy, cruelty and rotten politics are not new in the Tennessee walking horse world.

Yet here we are — still seeing it all nearly 50 years after the first of many walking horse scandals and early legislation to clean up the industry were supposed to return Tennessee walking horse time in the Volunteer State to its humble tradition and beauty.

Please ask your senators to cosponsor and pass the PAST bill. Tweet them with #PassthePASTAct. Call them at 202-224-3121.

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