USDA Proposes Tougher Walking Horse Soring Penalties

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has toughened regulations to stem persistent abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses by keeping trainers and owners who violate the rules out of shows and sales.

The Humane Society of the United States says the new two-year plan announced this month closes a loophole that's allowed some repeat abusers to continue showing and selling prized Walking Horses.

However, some industry leaders say the USDA is going too far in its effort to eliminate soring, the practice of exaggerating the breed's natural high-stepping gait with caustic chemicals, painful shoeing and other techniques.

"We want the penalty to fit the crime," said Chuck Cadle, executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association, the official breed registry. "We need to work to make it a better document."

Federal regulators can suspend trainers and owners who use soring to artificially create the breed's special gait, also known as the "Big Lick." Those horses can gain an advantage in the multimillion dollar horse show circuit that stretches from Kentucky to California.

The new plan lengthens suspensions for soring, including a method called pressure-shoeing that makes hooves tender and causes the horse to prance delicately in the ring. A first-time violation for pressure shoeing now is a five-year suspension, and a second violation brings a lifetime suspension.

In the past, trainers or owners who were given probation for soring their horses could expunge the violation from their records if they complied with the regulations. They could still show and sell horses during probation as long as no more violations were found.

USDA spokesman Darby Holladay said the probation was eliminated under this plan in response to comments the federal agency gathered during a series of public meetings over the past year.

Keith Dane, equine director for the Humane Society, said the probation allowed some trainers and owners who got cited more than once to avoid the stiffer penalties of second and third violations.

"The net effect is that if one were inclined to be very careful and deceitful, one could continue to have horses in the ring," Dane said.

Niels Holch, a regulatory attorney for the industry in Washington, D.C., defended the probation period as something that allowed trainers and owners to earn back a clean record.

"This issue is an important one to many in the industry because the USDA pulled it abruptly," Holch said.

The USDA's decision eliminate the probation has caused many Walking Horse organizations to question whether they would abide by the new plan, Holch said.

With hundreds of Walking Horse shows and sales annually, the USDA relies on the Walking Horse industry to regulate itself with nongovernment inspectors hired by the horse organizations.

Disagreements between USDA inspectors and trainers over the disqualification of several champion Walking Horses shut down the breed's premier show in Shelbyville last August.

The disqualifications caused such an uproar that off-duty Highway Patrol officers who were working as security guards encouraged USDA officials to leave the show as crowds of upset horsemen gathered.

The incident was a wake-up call, Cadle said.

"The USDA is really serious about the industry correcting this problem," Cadle said. "It's not going to be the status quo, and it's going to be a new day."

Texas horse trainer Wink Groover, chairman of the National Horse Show Commission, said his organization won't sign the plan but will continue to negotiate with the USDA.

"We only want sound horses in the show ring," Groover said in a press release. "But we want to continue to work with the department to sign a mutually acceptable operating plan."

Holladay said Walking Horse shows and sales will still be required to follow federal regulations regarding the ban of sore horses, whether or not the organizations that operate them sign the new plan.

"We think it's in everyone's interest to sign. It facilitates an even playing field," Holladay said.

Cadle said the breed registry signed the plan in the hopes its members they can work with the USDA to amend the plan.

"TWEBEA is doing all it can to straighten up the industry as well," Cadle said. "I just think we all have to take a citizenship role and do what's best for the horse."

The USDA has invited the horse organizations to discuss the plan at a meeting in Kentucky later this month.

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The Associated Press

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