Copyright WHR 2007 
by Christy Howard Parsons
            Niels Holch made the rounds on Monday, Feb. 26, to go over the newly proposed 2007-2009 Operating Plan put forth by the United States Department of Agriculture. Holch presented the USDA’s plan at the Executive Committee meeting of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, then at the National Horse Show Commission and finally finished up at an evening meeting with the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association.
            For a link to the complete copy of the plan, visit This version highlights in red the changes the USDA made to the plan that was submitted by the 10 HIOs that had negotiated the new three-year agreement.
            For the last 13 months, all 10 HIOs have been meeting quarterly all around the country and holding monthly conference calls to negotiate compromises on the various issues and in December, Holch submitted a joint plan to the USDA. The USDA posted this plan on its Web site for a comment period and then on Feb. 13 the USDA abruptly changed their position, released a new plan with substantive changes and gave the HIOs until Feb. 28 to be covered by the old plan. The 2004-2006 Operating Plan had been extended, but the USDA has now announced that this plan would expire on Feb. 28.
            It is important to have an Operating Plan because it provides protection for trainers, exhibitors and show managers in enforcing the Horse Protection Act. For example, if there is no Operating Plan in effect, the HIO is charged with enforcing the Horse Protection Act. The HIO inspects horses and imposes whatever penalty it deems appropriate, but then must submit all tickets to the USDA (whether they were present at the show or not) for possible federal tickets.
            In the WHTA meeting, several trainers gave personal stories regarding federal tickets they had received during periods where the industry was not covered by an Operating Plan that resulted in large fines and suspensions in excess of what would have been charged under any of the Operating Plans ever signed by the industry.
            If the USDA writes a ticket, the violator has to pursue relief in front of an administrative law judge (an employee of the USDA). They can eventually take the issue to a Circuit Court, but this court can only act in its appellate authority in making its decision. Holch estimated that fighting a ticket throughout the entire process could cost between $60,000 and $1 million.
            The Operating Plan concept began in 1999, and it was at this time that the government stepped back from being the primary enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, and allowed the industry to take the lead in enforcement. It was a big concession by the USDA to allow the industry HIO to inspect horses, with the USDA VMOs to follow only when they deemed necessary. The goal of the program was for the USDA to only evaluate the DQPs, not the actual horses themselves. The USDA at this time, still does write tickets on occasion and still does some inspections directly.
            Holch, who has been representing the walking horse industry for 15 years, presented the USDA’s plan as optimistically as he could, however, the single biggest issue with the USDA’s proposed plan is that it removes the probationary period which had been provided for in previous Operating Plans.
            Before the first Operating Plan, if someone got a ticket for a violation and did not have a problem for 20 years, then got a ticket again on the same horse, it would be a second violation. It was bargained for in the Operating Plan that everyone had an opportunity to redeem themselves by allowing a one-year probationary period after their suspension was served. If a horse did not receive a second ticket in that one-year period, then the count starts over and if there were a future offense, it would be a first offense.
            It had been suggested in some public comment forums that the probationary period be removed, but in the negotiations with the other HIOs, this issue had been resolved. Thus it was surprise to many in the industry when this plan was released with the probationary period removed.
            In the negotiated plan that was submitted in December, there were also some substantive changes to the penalty structure. Pressure shoeing will now receive a five-year suspension on a first offense and a lifetime suspension on a second offense. Also unilateral sore violations will now receive a 30-day suspension on a first offense and two months on a second offense. There are no proposed changes for bilateral sore and scar rule violations. The USDA did not make any additional changes in the penalty area.
            A positive element of the Operating Plan is a much clearer standard for owners to absolve themselves of liability for a horse that is sored by the trainer without their knowledge. If you own a horse and do not allow your horse to be in violation of the horse protection act, this plan, for the first time since 1999, gives true owner liability release. This is a major step forward for owners.
            The important concept within the Operating Plan called “follow the horse,” does stay intact within the plan. This “follow the horse” concept means that violations accrue to the horse, not to the trainer. Thus if a trainer had two horses which received scar rule infractions in the same night, both of these infractions would be treated as first offenses. The trainer does receive the suspension as well as the horse, however, he would receive two first time suspensions as opposed to a first and second time suspension.
            The scar rule continues to be an area of contention, but this is essentially in the application of the rule, rather than the rule itself. Holch did explain that the veterinary definitions which he had been lobbying to have included in the Operating Plan for a decade had finally been included in the plan.
            The penalties in each Operating Plan have gotten more severe. Holch suggested that unfortunately DQPs then sometimes feel pressure about making a subjective determination on a horse that is close when they know that a lengthy suspension would result. Some HIOs have proposed that particularly for scar rule violations, that the suspensions be removed and that the penalty be that the horse cannot show and goes back to the truck.
            Holch also indicated that the USDA doesn’t always follow the Operating Plan and that they are not required to sign the plan. In two instances, the USDA pursued federal cases against trainers who had already served HIO suspensions that would indicate a case of double jeopardy.
            “They [the USDA] don’t treat us in my opinion as a true partner. It’s more of a parent-child relationship. They tell us how it is and we have to find a way to live with it. It is better than it used to be, but it is very uneven,” explained Holch.
            The scar rule continues to be a problem in its application. Holch explained, “Each VMO approaches it differently - each HIO approaches it differently. Yet we have shows coming up and people have to know what’s in and what’s out. This problem is independent of this operating plan; it is an issue about what happens in the field and how different people see how the scar rule is being implemented.”

Click here for Operating Plan