Walking horse shows are watched more closely than some would like

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2012:

CHATTANOOGA–U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice on September 19,  2012 fined Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell $75,000,  three years on supervised probation, and 300 hours of community service to be done for the USDA.

“It’s the stiffest sentence ever handed down under the 1970 Horse Protection Act,” exulted Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle.  “McConnell in 2011 was captured on tape by a Humane Society of the U.S. undercover investigator intentionally injuring the animals under his charge in order to get them to step higher and win ribbons at horse shows,” Pacelle elaborated.  “McConnell still faces 15 charges of violating Tennessee’s cruelty to animals statute in a pending case, and his guilty plea in federal court virtually guarantees the charges will stick.”

McConnell was also expelled from the National Celebration Hall of Fame.

McConnell was sentenced six weeks after codefendant John Mays, 50, pleaded guilty Monday to a single count of conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act.  Mays was ordered by Judge Mattice to fulfill a community service requirement by writing an exposé of the practice of soring horses to make them high-step.  Mays was sentenced to describe the different types of soring, how it effects horses, and for which clients trainers sore horses.

Pacelle and HSUS director of equine protection Keith Dane visited the National Celebration in person.  “We saw some flat-shod horses exhibit a normal or natural gait,” Pacelle said.  “But seeing those animals only accentuated for us how bizarre it is to see horses with four-inch stacks and heavy chains on their feet, prancing into the show arena, raising their front legs high and unnaturally shifting their weight to their back legs.

Attendance seemed way down,” Pacelle added.  “In a 25,000-seat arena, there were perhaps only 5,000 people.” “Attendance numbers were not at the levels they once were,” admitted National Celebration publicist Jennifer Baker,  “the overall attendance of 165,000 was better than expected, and weekend attendance increased 7% over last year.  In 2012 there were 2,080 entries and in 2011,  2,198.”

“Purple Strategies”

The walking horse industry organization SHOW Inc., whose acronym stands for “Sound horses,  Honest Judging,  Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly,” hired the Washington, D.C.-based Purple Strategies, including spokesperson Baker, as part of an effort “intended to divert attention from recent revelations about abusive practices in the multimillion-dollar walking horse industry,” reported Bobby Allyn of the Nashville Tennessean.

“Purple Strategies has devised public relations campaigns for clients such as McDonald’s, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce., and BP after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010,”  Allyn continued.Purple Srategies managing director Stephen B. Smith Jr., “comes from a long generation of horse riders and breeders in Tennessee.  His father, of the same name, was once president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association.  His grandfather Reese was a noted horse breeder,” Allyn noted.

Even before Purple Strategies entered the arena, HSUS had encountered considerable resistance in Shelbyville, home of the National Celebration.  The National Celebration claims to bring $41 million a year into Shelbyville.  HSUS “has tried to publish editorial columns and paid advertisements in Shelbyville’s local paper, the Times-Gazette, but the columns and the ads have been refused.  Sadie Fowler, the Times-Gazette editor, formerly worked for the Walking Horse Report, an industry newspaper,” Allyn revealed.


During and just after the 2012 National Celebration, Baker of Purple Strategies issued frequent media releases detailing the findings of SHOW’s own horse inspections.  “Of 2,293 inspections,”  Baker summarized,  “SHOW found 43 sensitivity/ scar violations and another 13 technical violations unrelated to a horse being deemed sore,” amounting to “a 98.1% compliance rate with the Horse Protection Act, significantly better than the 93.6% achieved last year.”

Trainers Scott Beaty and Brad Davis, after failing inspection on August 29,  2012, received two-week suspensions from exhibiting horses and lost ribbons, trophies, and prize money.  While touting the Beaty and Davis suspensions as demonstrating the success of walking horse industry self-policing, Baker and other National Celebration spokespersons accused the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service of uneven and unfair Horse Welfare Act enforcement.

SHOW president Stephen Mullins objected that USDA inspectors cited five times as many horses for violations in the first six days of the 2012 National Celebration as were cited in 2011 during the entire event.  “In my opinion, the USDA is wrongly disqualifying sound horses,” said Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization representative Jane Lynch Crain.

Countered an American Veterinary Medical Association media release, “Congruence between violation rates for 2011 (9.5%) and 2012 (9.0%) suggests the USDA’s approach to enforcement is consistent.  Consistency among results provides further evidence that abuse within the Walking Horse industry is a systemic problem.”

HSUS meanwhile upstaged the climactic final days of the National Celebration by releasing a video in which convicted horse-soring trainer Barney Davis,  39,  of Lewiston, Tennessee,  alleged that “The only way to win at the Celebration is to sore.”

Baker and National Celebration officials countered that Davis “was a spotted saddle horse trainer,” not a walking horse trainer, reported Pam Sohn of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

But, noted Sohn, “Both breeds are walking and gaited horses, trained to make the ‘big lick’ in the same way.”  Baker also alleged that HSUS “allowed horse abuse to continue for 11 months,” after videotaping McConnell striking horses, “in order to fuel their fundraising and public relations machines.”

Dane of HSUS explained to Sohn that the McConnell video, made in spring 2011, was promptly presented to federal authorities. “Prosecutors asked HSUS not to release the video while they shaped a case,” Sohn summarized. “After McConnell pleaded guilty, a portion of the video was released.”

The 2012 National Celebration was held after months of skirmishing between SHOW and the USDA over inspection rules and authority.  The Horse Protection Act allows horse industry organizations to license Designated Qualified Persons to do inspections at shows for Act compliance, in lieu of inspection by USDA-APHIS staff.

USDA-APHIS since June 2012 has required Designated Qualified Persons to assess minimum penalties for violations of the Horse Protection Act, instead of merely giving warnings, but five of the 12 organizations that use Designated Qualified Persons, represented by SHOW,  contend in a federal lawsuit that, according to a SHOW media release, “The new rule attempts to force private organizations to impose federal mandatory suspension penaltiesSwith no regard for the accused individual’s constitutional rights.”

Updating the law

The conflict over the USDA-APHIS inspection rules was preliminary to what may become years of lobbying over proposed amendments to the Horse Protection Act introduced as HR 6388 on September 13, 2012 by U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen (D-Tenneessee) and Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky), whose wife, former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Constance Harriman-Whitfield, is now Senior Advisor for Presidential Intitiatives for HSUS.   While HR 6388 is unlikely to advance far in the present Congress, now adjourned until after the November 2012 national election, but it or a similar bill is almost certain to be introduced into the next Congress.

According to Humane Society Legislative Fund president Mike Markarian,  “The legislation would eliminate the industry-run inspection system, in which horse industry organizations choose who conducts inspections at horse shows, and instead would have USDA develop a roster of licensed inspectors, train them, assign them to shows, and oversee enforcement.  It would explicitly ban certain devices used in soring, including chains designed to cause friction or strike a horse’s sore leg, and weighted shoes and pads attached in such a way as to painfully alter the horse’s gait.  The bill would make the actual soring of a horse for the purpose of showing or selling the horse illegal, as well as the act of directing another to sore a horse for these purposes.  And it would increase the criminal penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony,” punishable by up to three years in jail, with fines of up to $5,000 per violation. A third violation could bring “permanent disqualification from participating in any horse show, exhibition, sale or auction,” Markarian said.

“The current practice of essentially allowing the industry to police itself has failed miserably, ”  Markarian charged, noting that “USDA swab tests on 52 random horses at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration resulted in 52 positive findings for prohibited foreign substances.”

Countered Baker, “The USDA has punished 52 trainers in the last 42 years.  In the last three years alone, SHOW [members’ inspectors] suspended 152 trainers for an entire year.  We do have a problem however with legislation that will eliminate inspectors, be they from the industry or the USDA.

“Each horse industry organization [with inspection authority] is [already] certified by the USDA,”  Baker continued.  “Each organization is required to submit a handbook to the USDA that details their inspection process, rules, and how they properly administer Horse Protection Act guidelines.  The USDA approves the handbook every year as a requirement for re-certification.

Designated Qualified Persons [inspectors] are trained by USDA-certified horse industry organization personnel.  The training is attended and observed by the USDA.  USDA personnel are part of the training process.  The initial training is 16 hours.  Designated Qualified Persons are required to take continuing education/training classes each year to be re-certified.”

“Currently,”  Baker said,  horse industry organization inspectors “inspect every horse participating” in a show.  “Under the proposed change, horse shows would voluntarily request inspectors from the USDA.  If they don’t request inspectors to be assigned, there will be no inspections unless the USDA makes a surprise visit.  The result is that fewer horses will be inspected, and there will be less enforcement of the Horse Protection Act.” Baker contended that “There is no scientific or other evidence that action devices or pads hurt a horse,” but acknowledged that, “There is no doubt that soring hurts horses.”

Industry digs in

Conflict between the walking horse industry and horse advocates is likely to intensify.  The National Celebration in July 2012 hired Mike Inman, of Bessemer, Alabama, to succeed former chief executive Doyle Meadows at the conclusion of the 2012 Celebration.  This produced “an audible gasp from those seeking to reform the badly-battered Shelbyville-based industry,” wrote Chantanoogan.com daily opinion writer Roy Exum. Previously sports editor at the Chattanooga News-Free Press for 36 yeas, Exum has observed the evolution of the modern day big money walking horse industry for longer and at closer range than almost anyone else who is not personally involved in it.

“USDA records reveal that Inman and his wife have been cited for violating the federal Horse Protection Act four times,” Exum continued.  “Sources say the three trainers they prefer all have recent histories of violating the Horse Protection Act.  Steve Dunn, a Hall of Fame inductee, has had at least eight violations, the most recent resulting in an eight-month suspension in 2011, while Justin Harris, the Trainer of the Year in 2009, has had nine violations in the past, including one earlier this year.  The other is Brandye Mills, who has had eight previous violations.

“Ironically,  Exum observed, “Inman’s appointment comes at a time when there has never been as determined a grass-roots effort to rid the walking horse industry of the corruption, cheating and abuse that has plagued it for the past 50 years.  Inman’s appointment appears to defy efforts to rid the rogues from the walking horse industry.”

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