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HPA Aims To Protect Horses, Level Competition



by Ann Bullard

Protect the horse.

Ensure a level playing field for all competitors.

Those are two of the stated reasons for the Horse Protection Act. The legislation, passed in 1970 and amended in 1976, regulates the way Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses and similar breeds are shown. It applies to events for all breeds except those “where speed is a prime factor, rodeo events, parades or trail rides.” (Horse Protection Act, US Code Title 15 1821, § 11.1)

The Act clearly states what action devices are and are not allowed at a show.

“Soring can be compared to steroid use in baseball; there's no difference [in effect] between the two,” said Darby Holladay, APHIS' public information officer. “Horses (or athletes) who obey the rules compete against those not abiding by them. It makes their life more difficult. There is a perceived short-term solution for short-term benefits. However, the health detriment in humans is not dissimilar to the detrimental health impact on a horse.”

The Act's enforcement - and concerns about technology - effectively shut down several walking horse shows. At Wartrace earlier this month, a show which normally averages several hundred entries had only 62 go through the gate. The loss of charitable revenue will be felt by Cascade School throughout the year.

State-of-the-art testing equipment - rather like CSI brought to the DQPs - is at the heart of much of the latest controversy. Comparatively new-to-the-horse-world technology, specifically the “sniffer” and a high-performance, hand-held thermographic camera, have raised concerns about new federal interpretations of the 35-year-old law.

For now, however, there are no changes to the way inspections will be recorded. Both pieces of equipment are in the evaluation phase. APHIS' Animal Care will not record technology information that is gathered at shows and could be used to identify horses, their exhibitors and owners. Dr. Todd Behre, the APHIS horse protection coordinator, assured the industry of this in a recent fact sheet distributed to horse industry organizations, interested associations and Walking Horse Report.

Until such testing is completed and HIOs are notified in writing that records will be kept, DQPs and VMOs will continue to rely on evaluation of a horse's movements, observation of its appearance and physical examination, including palpation and inspection of the skin on a horse's forelegs.

It's like CSI for the VMOs

“The reliability of the [sniffer] machine has been established by its manufacturer,” Behre said, explaining the USDA purchased the equipment two years ago. “We are using it for the same purpose the manufacturer intended: identifying aromas.”

Behre explained his staff is gathering data to determine the effectiveness of the test where detecting foreign substances on a horse's legs is concerned. Such questions already have been answered in other venues. The Department of Homeland Security uses the same equipment in such areas as maritime, airport, mass transit, automobile and truck screening, postal and public and commercial building heating and air-conditioning security.

Persons observing VMOs use the sniffer might be reminded of scenes from the popular CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) television shows. The professionals doing these tests are just as careful as those fictional investigators.

One concern expressed by some horse owners relates to how sniffer specimens are handled: what might be called the 'chain of custody' if a question should come to court. Behre quickly dismissed that concern.

“Before going to a show, the VMO takes a swab, puts it in a vial, has the machine sniff the vial with the swab in it,” Behre explained, adding they record that reading. We take that sealed vial to the show. As soon as a horse walks into the inspection area, Behre says it's important for the VMO to tell the handler he wants to do a sniffer sample.

“One VMO picks up the horse's leg. A second latex-gloved VMO opens the vial and lifts out the swab, swabs random areas on both the horse's pasterns with the same swab. He then puts it back in the vial, screws the vial closed and runs it on the sniffer machine,” he explained.

”When the VMO sees anything at all that he didn't see in the blank vial, he puts the vial in an envelope, signs across the seal and sends the sample in a USDA sealed container to our lab in Ames, Iowa. The package is opened only by an authorized person, who signs for it. An analytical chemist runs the sample through mass spectrometry, which positively identifies the substance,” he said.

Only gylcerum, Vaseline, mineral oil or combinations thereof are legal lubricants. No other chemicals, not even show sheen, are permitted on a horse's legs.

“We get between a 20 and 50-percent reading for a substance on horses' legs,” Behre said. He explained that VMOs take a sample from the lube bucket kept in the warm-up area every 30 minutes to see how much cross-contamination from trainers' hands is taking place. Thus far, they have found no positives from that bucket.

Behre explained if they take swab samples from many animals and have no readings out of machine; it indicates nothing is on horses' legs. “We have to see what's on there before we decide if it's worth looking for those substances.

“Thus far, we have found diesel fuel and many cases of benzocaine, lidocaine or another numbing agent which we suspect are used to deaden horses' response to palpation,” he said. “We have purchased different types of topical anesthetics at tack shows and run them through the machine as well. There are legitimate uses for these, but not on a pastern at a show. They are not illegal unless found on the limb of a horse at a show, exhibition or sale.”

He pointed out that APHIS has inspected more than 200 horses at FOSH (Friends of Sound Horses) and National Walking Horse Association shows, finding only one positive reading of any kind. “This horse had fungus medicine on its leg. The owner told us what it was and went to get the medicine. We tested it and got an identical reading. There was absolutely no penalty.”

The hand-held thermographic camera (Mikron Infrared's MikroScan 7515) shows little resemblance to the huge scanners horses of the 1970s were asked to stand between.

“This equipment is a quantum leap over the early days,” Behre said. [The device,] about the size of a camcorder, tells you the exact temperature of the area it's pointing to. It's the number that matters, not what it looks like on screen. The screen can be made to look like whatever one might want: red, green, yellow or blue. You can't change the temperature of the reading.

“We already have significant data for non-show horses, for those out in the field. We don't want to compare show stock to those. We are doing our homework with great detail before we use this as an enforcement tool; we're dotting the “I's” and crossing the T's if you will. The researcher on this program has a PhD in biophysics; he's a heat person,” Behre explained.

This equipment, too, has varied applications. “It's been used to detect SARs as people enter various countries. Any inflammation, any stress on tissue shows up as a variation,” said Bill Fuller, sales engineer for Mikron Infrared, Inc.

The equipment actually pictures what is beneath the skin. Hot spots caused from various agents show up as a heat source.

The CSI analogy isn't too far-fetched where the thermal imaging equipment is concerned. “It is the same technology used in night vision goggles,” Fuller explained. “These were used on a recent CSI episode to locate someone who was lost.”

Visual inspection: is it subjective?

Where the two tests under evaluation are objective measures, those presently used: visual inspection, palpation, interpretation of the scar rule may be less so.

“To be a violation, scars have to be an indication of soring,” Behre said. “Cuts of other types don't mean an animal has been subjected to that. One reason we have experienced people and veterinarians as DQPs is they understand the nature of tissue.”

Interpretation of the scar rule is one area some owners and trainers question. According to the USDA Horse Protection Training Manual, inspectors may use one of three methods to determine whether a horse meets the definition of being scarred.

With the flattened hand method, the hand is not used as a distance measurement. If a scar shows on the side and front of the foot (an area not covered by the hand) the animal is in violation of the scar rule.

With the neurovascular groove method, the inspector places his fingernail against the back of the pastern bone. Any scarred area covered by or forward of the pad of the finger is a violation.

If there is disagreement, a tape measure may be used. First, measure the circumference of the pastern; a scar reaching farther than 17.5 percent from the midline of the pastern is in violation. (See illustration 3.) A table giving exact measurements can be found on page 21 of the manual, which can be downloaded from the APHIS Web site, http://www.aphis.usda.gov/ac/hpatraining2004.pdf.

“There are horses which we don't find pre-show that are scarred quite significantly,” Behre said. “Legs may be covered with baby powder or other substances, including one advertised to cover baldness. We have recovered a couple of jars of this at The Celebration. This is one of the reasons horses are inspected again after they leave the ring.”

The veterinarian emphasized that inspections at auctions also are important. “We do this so people don't buy a horse that has no value; it's an indirect means to discourage soring. Even if someone says the horse is going to be an old broodmare, the scar rule says she can't go through a sale. We really are putting in protection for owners and buyers.”

Certainly a scar won't inhibit a mare's carrying a foal and such mares can be purchased from individuals without USDA inspection.

Finding those injuring a horse by pressure shoeing isn't as simple as interpreting the scar rule or inspection of a horse's legs.

“Hoof testing is the best thing we have now. The DQPs tap on the hoof or use a caliper, a hinged device that looks like a big pair of pliers. They squeeze on the sole or frog: the same thing a vet would do to find an abscess or test for navicular disease.”

Inspectors have the option of having a horse's shoes pulled if they suspect an object has been placed between the pad and its foot, its feet have been trimmed unusually short, thus causing pain or find any other signs of pressure shoeing. Shoes must be removed in the inspection area. The manual states this should not be done routinely but only when there is a good reason to do so.

Actions of a few damage the many.

“I haven't seen much difference in the last three years, which is as long I've been around,” Behre said. “Trainers, VMOs and retired VMOs tell me horses' appearance in inspection in much better than it was years ago.”

The amount of talk about soring, APHIS and inspection might lead one to think violations are widespread. Government reports disagree.

The year 2000 is the latest APHIS published report of events with and without their staff present. Overall, the violation rate was .37-percent - or 428 horses of 117,240 inspected. At National Horse Show Commission Shows, 260 horses of 58,623 or .44-percent were deemed in violation.

The number of violations jumps dramatically when you compare those when APHIS was and was not in attendance. The overall violation rate at APHIS-staffed shows was 1.67-percent, or 293 of 17,518 horses inspected at 59 shows. At the 508 shows with no APHIS staff in attendance, inspectors checked 99,722 horses, finding 139 or .14-percent in violation.

At the 27 Commission shows where APHIS was present, 180 of 8,429 horses were inspected; 2.14-percent were found to be in violation. This compared with 80 of 50,194, .16-percent found in violation at 246 shows, sales, auctions and exhibitions staffed only by DQPs and VMOs.

Why the discrepancy? APHIS representatives say that is unclear. When approved, it seems that using the new technology could level the results as well as the playing field.

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