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Blackburn Bill Would Protect Celebration

(Editor's note: The following piece reflects a recent Q & A interview with Celebration CEO Mike Inman and the Times-Gazette, and also includes comments from U.S. Rep. Pat Marsh, who is also a Celebration board member. The purpose of this article is to inform readers about a recent bill introduced to Congress regarding the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.)

After returning from a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with politicians and lobbyists regarding future laws surrounding the walking horse industry, Celebration CEO Mike Inman is working to educate the public about a new bill he says will keep the horse industry alive while, at the same time, protect the horse from the small minority of trainers who abuse their horses.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced a bill (H.R. 4098, the Horse Protection Amendments Act of 2014) to combat another bill filed last year by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. Inman says, if passed, the Whitfield bill would unnecessarily destroy the sport of showing Tennessee Walking Horses and thereby the Celebration event held each summer in Shelbyville.

"Now that the people (in Washington) are starting to really understand the Whitfield and HSUS bill and the difference between the two, we're starting to see movement from those supporting Whitfield toward the Blackburn bill, and that's what we saw during our most recent trip to Washington," Inman said.

The Whitfield bill is backed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), an organization the walking horse industry has battled for years, and it calls for the elimination of all pads and chains, equipment used to achieve the high-stepping gait of the performance horses that draw excitement to the show.

Inman cited studies (mainly the Auburn Study) that prove pads and chains cause no pain to the horse. Eliminating the pads and chains would also eliminate many divisions held at shows, thus the industry would suffer greatly.


Key differences

There are a few key differences between the Whitfield bill and the Blackburn bill, Inman said.

Blackburn's bill, which has nine co-sponsors, was filed last week. It is supported by not only The Celebration, but also the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association, and also the Walking Horse Trainers' Association.

Inman and Marsh are two of several industry leaders working to educate politicians about the bill they hope will gain momentum.


Equipment allowed

The Blackburn bill does not call for the elimination of equipment used on horses -- chains and pads.

"The equipment is not eliminated, and the horse is saved," Inman said.

"I think (the Blackburn bill) is a wonderful alternative to the Whitfield bill," added Rep. Pat Marsh, who is also a Celebration board member. "The Whitfield bill will do away with the industry as we know it. The statistics show it would take away 85 percent of horses at the Celebration. It would leave only the flat shod divisions, and shows with only flat shod classes are poorly attended. People come to the show to see the fancy, high-stepping horses, and we need to keep the industry going strong."



Blackburn's bill calls for an end to the manual inspections that many horse enthusiasts argue are subjective and instead would rely on science-based testing to determine whether a horse as been abused. Some examples of the technology used would be blood tests, swabbing for chemicals used to sore horses, and radiography -- all common forms of testing in other breeds' competition.

The governing board of the inspection organization charged with overseeing the shows would develop the exact protocol of the testing.

Inman said the subjectivity of manual inspections has hurt the industry in recent years.

"It's been a real detriment because a parent of a child showing is afraid to send their child into the ring because of the subjectivity," Inman said. "This uncertainty has really held us back. When people can rest assured that the testing is science-based they will have the confidence to show and enjoy their horses."


One organization

Blackburn's bill calls for a single organization to inspect horses at shows, as does the Whitfield bill. Where the two bills differ is, under the Whitfield bill, all inspectors would be employed by the USDA.

"This will cost taxpayers between $10 and $20 million, at a minimum," Inman said. "The Blackburn bill calls for one HIO (Horse Industry Organization) independent of the industry, but not paid for by taxpayers. Rather, it would be paid for through the charge of inspections themselves."

"It would be led by an individual group of veterinarians who want to do it right vs. using USDA inspectors at every show and doing it the same old way. Right now, they only go to less than 10 percent of the shows ... Where are they going to get the money to do that? Why should we allow them to do that when we already have a huge fed deficit?"

Keith Dane, the Humane Society's vice president of equine protection, has opposing views on the issues Inman and Marsh discussed. He was quoted in the Tennessean as saying Blackburn's call for one HIO is flawed.

"It calls for a single organization to inspect horses at shows, but appointments to the group would fall to the agriculture commissioners in Tennessee and Kentucky with input from the horse industry," according to the Tennessean article.


United front

Three main legs of the walking horse industry have joined together in supporting the Blackburn bill.

"The fact that TWHBEA and the Trainers' Association are all supporting this, along with The Celebration is a strong statement," Inman said. "We haven't seen agreement among the three groups in quite some time. It shows commitment within the three key parts of the industry to get to a 100 percent compliance rate (of the Horse Protection Act).


What's next

Industry leaders are now working to earn support of their bill in Washington. Marsh recently asked Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to look at the Senate version of the bill and lead the effort on that front.

"He said he hoped he could support us," Marsh said, adding Corker needed to study the bill further. "He said he'd look at it and learn all he could before he could officially do that, but I think he'll support us -- and he's not for soring horses either.

The Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation has officially endorsed Blackburn's bill. Tennessee Farm Bureau sent letters of endorsement to Blackburn and the remainder of the Republican delegation of Tennessee, which all co-sponsored the legislation. They include Phil Roe, Jimmy Duncan, Chuck Fleischmann, Scott DesJarlais, Dianne Black and Stephen Fincher.


The process

Marsh said the bills will next go through the committee process, and only one of the two bills will likely reach the floor for vote.

"And it will probably be amended, whichever one makes it to the floor," he said.

Marsh said he doesn't think a resolution will be made anytime soon.

"Everything moves so slow (in Washington)," he said. "But The Celebration is still going forward with their plans for one HIO for this year's show."

Marsh said he believes most of the "bad people have gotten out (of the business) and that is what we want. We do not want them around."

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