USEF Powers Upheld

The United States Equestrian Federation's (USEF) authority to enforce its own rules and regulations has been affirmed, at least temporarily, in a federal court in Lexington, Ky. A decision on whether the injunction should be made permanent is expected in a few weeks. The Kentucky case arose from a lawsuit filed by Cody J. Williams, a self-styled bloodstock agent who challenged the USEF's power to discipline him for abusing a horse in a schooling area during an event at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2002.

Williams was charged with violations of the USEF's anti-cruelty rules for excessive whipping and for "poling," a prohibited training technique in which a horse is rapped on the front legs with a pole while jumping to encourage the animal to avoid touching a fence. Williams did not participate in an administrative hearing on the charges, arguing that the USEF had no jurisdiction to discipline him because he had not been a member of the organization since 1999. He also failed to appeal the USEF finding that he was guilty of the abuse charges. Instead, Williams refused to pay the $5,000 fine and continued to participate in recognized competitions, according to Ira Finkelstein, counsel for the USEF.

Attorneys for Williams argued that Williams had not renewed his membership in the federation when it expired in 1999, and that the federation therefore could not discipline him for conduct when he was not a member. Although admitting that the USEF is a private organization, Williams' attorneys also argued that the federation assumed a public function when it enforced rules that mirrored state animal cruelty laws. This asserted public action, they said, amounted to a federal civil rights violation.

United States District Judge Joseph M. Hood found no merit in either argument. He dismissed Williams' complaint because there was no federal cause of action, and he granted a temporary injunction in favor of the USEF banning Williams from USEF-recognized horse competitions. The USEF is a private organization, Judge Hood explained, with an "absolute right" to prohibit Williams, or any other member or non-member who abuses horses, from attending recognized competitions in any capacity.

The Kentucky court's ruling to uphold the USEF's disciplinary powers wasn't unexpected. The New York Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion four years ago in a ruling upholding the federation's right to ban Barney Ward from the grounds of USEF-recognized competitions. Ward had been suspended after he entered a guilty plea to one count of criminal conspiracy to commit wire fraud arising from a scheme in which horses were killed for insurance proceeds.

About the Author

Milt Toby, JD

Milt Toby is an author and attorney who has been writing about horses and legal issues affecting the equine industry for more than 40 years. Former Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association's Equine Law Section, Milt has written eight nonfiction books, including national award winners Dancer’s Image and Noor. He teaches Equine Commercial Law in the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program.

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