(Editor’s Note: Jerry Harris of What A Horse and Christy Howard Parsons of the Walking Horse Report collaborated on an interview with Bill Hawks of AgWorks Solutions, the consulting firm hired by the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association to aid in current negotiations with the United States Department of Agriculture. The interview aired on What A Horse on Friday, March 23, and is available via the What A Horse Web site.)
Jerry Harris (JH)
Jim Fuller (JF)
Bill Hawks AgWorks Solutions (BH)
Christy Parsons (CHP)

JH- I’m here with Christy Parsons from the Walking Horse Report and Bill Hawks from AgWorks Solutions. Bill is working right now with the Trainers’ Association on resolving all the differences between the Horse Protection Act that covers trainers and the USDA. Now, Bill, I’m going to start this off. And, Christy will ask questions too.

CHP- I’ll jump in.

JH-Bill, at one time you did work with the USDA, correct?

BH-Correct. I was under secretary of marketing and regulatory programs with USDA. In that role I had the responsibility for APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), agricultural marketing service and CHIPS, our grain inspections, packers and stockyards. All three of those agencies reported to me. Of course APHIS is the one that runs the Horse Protection acts through Animal Care.

JH-I don’t want you to feel like a ping-pong ball, but I’m going to ask a question, then I’ll refer to Christy who will ask a question to keep this thing going.
CHP-Why don’t we start out by also talking about your partner in business and her role.

BH-Absolutely. I have a partner and she is the brains of the operation and a pretty one, if you would like to say, Dr. Valerie Ragan. Dr. Ragan worked here in Tennessee some years ago as a career vet with APHIS and so we started AgWorks Solutions about a year ago, so I have a wonderful partner.


JH-The trainers hired you as a consultant. What is your job description and what are your goals?

BH-Actually, we—my job description—we’re trying to figure that out as we go…and other duties as assigned. We’re working with the trainers to resolve the conflicts and differences that have evolved over the years with the HPA. Obviously, there are some concerns with the scar rule interpretations, but the one thing we’ve found consistently in the industry is that everybody wants to eliminate sore horses. Everybody wants to do away with pressure-shod horses. That’s something that’s come up recently. While we’re trying to resolve some differences of opinion-if you will-we have a common goal, both the trainers and the USDA and I think, the industry as a whole. My job is to walk through these land mines and help walk the trainers through these land mines.

CH-You’ve already been to two shows. What do you think so far?

BH-Let me tell you. I went to Monroe, La., and I got the opportunity to pick up a lot of horses’ feet and I got the opportunity to get in the barns and visit with owners, trainers, and I’ve been very impressed with these horses. Of course, I’m familiar with walking horses and have been around them, but it’s been a long time. The horses are just absolutely magnificent. And, then of course I came to Shelbyville last night at the horse show here and was able to do the same thing and I must say I’m not only impressed with the caliber of the horses, but also with the enthusiasm of the people. They tell me if I ever buy one, I’m hooked for life. If I attend one more show, I may have one!

CH-Did they get you on one?

BH-No, I did not; the day didn’t work to get on one.

JH-You’ll get on one. I understand that you did go around to some barns. I believe Valerie Regan was with you when you went. What were some of your impressions of the horses and what were hers?

BH-She was here in Tennessee as a veterinary trainee back some years ago—probably 20—and she has seen a vast difference in those horses. I think that’s a lot of the perception. We went to one barn yesterday and went to three more barns today. Valerie was with us in the one barn and we had an opportunity to be here last night. Obviously, our impression of the horses is that they are very, very much improved. They’re good looking horses. We’re always striving to do things better, but what is better? The horses really did look good.

CHP-Did you see any inspections and actually see any horses that our inspectors turned down?

BH-I absolutely did. I saw horses in Monroe, La., that were turned down by the DQPs. Actually I didn’t spend as much time in the inspection area last night, I was having too much fun out here with these, but I did see one horse that was turned down. The DQPs really seem to be trying to do an excellent job and that’s one of the things that’s going to help this industry.


JH-What do you see in the near future and even further along, in the discrepancies in the way of the interpretations of the scar rule?

BH-I think obviously that’s an area we need to work on—the interpretation of the scar rule, the consistency. That is one of the things I consistently hear is about the inconsistencies. Some of it is interpretation. We’re working with the USDA and others. We attended a meeting in Lexington, Ky., earlier this week where we had all of the industry there, not just trainers but all segments of industry. The common thing that we heard is we want to put sound, clean horses in the ring. We don’t want sore horses in the ring like I said to start with. I’ll draw an analogy here. We’re in Shelbyville and I am driving to Memphis tomorrow. Some people would go up to Nashville and across I-40, some people would go down and go to Hwy. 64. The point I’m trying to make here is that we all agree where we need to get; the roadmap is a little bit different for different people, so what we’ve got to do; I’ve got a phrase that I always use and that is that working together works. So, we’re working with all segments of the industry—particularly with USDA right now-- to try to make this a successful horse showing season and I feel real good about that.

CH--You said at the meeting you got to see some representatives from all the different HIOs. Talk a little about the unity within the different organizations.

BH-I think the unity there is not what it should be. I think there are people with maybe some agendas that are different than others and I think there’s where we need to put a lot of effort. From our side of the aisle-if you will-we need to tell our stories. The horse owners need to tell their stories; the trainers need to tell their stories. People need to see the kind of horses that I’ve seen over these last few weeks that I’ve had the opportunity to observe. That’s the biggest thing that I see. When people see these kids out there enjoying riding those horses, when they see the moms and dads and the grandmoms and the granddads and the care and nurturing those horses get, I think we’ve got a good story to tell and I think we just need to tell our story.

JH-What do you see in the future? The future of the Tennessee Walking Horse? How do you see it?

BH-Well, I think that as long as we work collectively, together with USDA, with other segments of industry, with trainers I’m working with right now. It involves all segments of the industry. It’s going to take a unified effort to accomplish that. I see a bright future for the industry if everybody will slow down and take a few deep breaths and look at where we need to go. Put our focus on where we want to go with the walking horse, and that is to have good shows. Whether they’re flat shod, whether they’re padded—it doesn’t matter—we need to make sure we have good, clean horses in the ring and let everybody enjoy these horses. It’s a wonderful breed and we just need to protect the horse and we need to protect the industry.

CHP-Have we looked at any other additional studies? We had the Auburn study…

BH-We have not. There’s been a lot of discussions surrounding additional studies. Obviously, the Auburn study has been done for some time. There are probably further investigations of particular issues that could be looked at. I think the jury is out on what we truly need to do and what we truly need to look at, what we need to evaluate. I’ve had a lot of discussions with other veterinarians about the action, the movement of the horses’ feet, what could be done with shoeing, so I think there’s a lot of discussion surrounding studies. But, the first thing you’ve got to do is tell me what you want to study and find out, then you find a study. What is it that you truly want to find out. I’ve always said that when I want to do a study, I want to set a study up that will truly give me some information that I can take the appropriate actions based on that information. That’s really what we want to do.

CHP-I know you said you met with the AAEP (the American Association of Equine Practitioners). Tell us about that.

BH-We did that in Lexington, Ky., Monday of this past week, the AAEP. They’re interested in trying to help the industry move forward. There were two veteranarians. I think we had the “John brothers.” Dr. John O’Brien and Dr. John Bennett. They were both there and have had extensive practice and work with the walking horse. It’s an educational process. The AAEP is looking for ways that they can help solve some of these issues, which they’ve done in some other areas and that’s what they’re trying to do.

JH-Have you seen the motion study by the University of Tennessee?

BH-I have reviewed that somewhat, but I have not reviewed it in depth.

JH-I’ve always had a feeling, and this is the way I feel, and we’re doing a clinic on April 6, on Good Friday, where we’re going to be doing flat shod up to performance. We’re going to be showing a motion study. Of course, right now, they’re trying to get a new grant to do a motion study on the padded performance horse. Do you think doing things like this to education the public is something we need to do more of?

BH-I absolutely think the better you can inform the general public-the horse enthusiast, they’re informed either one way or the other; some of them are misinformed—so we need to continue to inform them, but we also need to inform the general public. So, anything you can do—holding clinics—working with the public is very important.
CHP-What about the Operating Plan? Tell us what you think about the new plan in particular and the operating plan concept, in general.

BH-The Operating Plan concept in general, I think, has gotten to be a tremendously long, complex document, and there has been a tremendous amount of discussion surrounding the operating plan. A lot of the major HIOs have not signed that Operating Plan. I think it’s an issue we need to try to work through. There again, I have a tendency to say, sometimes the first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is quit digging. So, I think this may be one of those cases. We need to stop and take a look at it. We need to see what we’re doing and truly, what is in the best interest of the Horse Protection Act—being able to protect the horses. What’s in the best interest of the shows, the HIOs—really what the ultimate goal is, what is in the best interest of the horse and those people who dearly love that horse.

CHP-One of our largest concerns in the beginning was that we lost our probationary period. We had agreed on an Operating Plan and we kind of got that yanked out from underneath us.

BH-Right. I have heard and been engaged in a lot of these discussions about the probation plan. Those discussions continue to go forth. So, the jury is out. How about that?

CHP-That’s a fair answer. What about, there was some conversation about signing the operating plan and then opting out. Do you think that’s a good idea? Are there disadvantages?

BH-Well, there are multiple ways you can do it. The plan does allow for that. You can sign it and opt out—I don’t know that anyone has ever signed one and then opted out. To my knowledge, that’s never happened, but it’s clearly in the plan. And, then there are others that say you are better off not to sign the plan and try to get in it what you want. Those discussions are continuing. The industry has got to decide what is truly in its best interest.

CHP-There was a lot of pressure to sign it. Of course TWHBEA’s HIOs did sign it and part of their position is that they felt like by signing it, they felt like they had more control over changing it. Some people feel like if you sign it, it’s harder to get a change. How do you feel?

BH-We’re back to six in one; half a dozen in another. The plan clearly allows as it’s written, for discussion (from any HIOs), so there’s nothing that prohibits you from entering into discussions with the department whether you’ve signed it or not signed it. We have already talked about the option to sign it and opt out, so I think those are some of the discussions that continue as we speak, so hopefully, we can get those answered and we can get that worked out.

CHP- How comfortable are you with the penalties that the NHSC is imposing in the absence in the plan, now?

BH-I think the penalties appear to be quite appropriate. They do exceed what’s specified in the act. And, again, their whole object here in the inspection process is to keep those horses out of the ring that shouldn’t be in there, that we all clearly agree, should not be in there.

CHP- I think Wednesday night some judges stepped up and sent a horse out of the ring.

JH- I think there were three total. I think that’s appropriate. This is the way I’ve always taken the situation the trainers are in. If all three of us are trainers, you two may not be showing tonight, but every time I take a horse and I am up in front of VMOs, DQPs, anybody, I’m taking your livelihood up there with me too. I need to be honest with myself and then I can be honest with everybody else. That’s what I feel about taking the horses up there. From what I’ve seen-I had a gentleman walk up to me and say that I haven’t seen as many clean, free-going, loose horses at a horseshow since I don’t know when, that I saw Wednesday and Thursday-and I have to agree. The horses that came in were just in great shape. Dr. Behre said that they were as clean as a whistle. I think that’s what everybody wants.

BH-I could not agree more. That’s exactly what everybody wants. I think obviously Wednesday night and Thursday night, there were reports it was a very good horse show. You don’t have to be a veterinarian. You can sit out there in those stands and watch those horses out there and you can tell. They’re in good shape.

CHP-You had Dr. Gipson from the USDA sitting in the stands with you last night. That’s a unique perspective for him; usually he’s in the inspection area. What were his general impressions?

BH-Dr. Gipson, who I’ve known for a number of years, is somebody who wants to work through issues. He is very careful to observe. A person in that position will not say exactly said what he thinks. That would probably be inappropriate. In my previous life, I probably wouldn’t have either and I understand his role. Certainly, that dialogue has begun is certainly a good sign, so hopefully, good things will come out of this.

CHP-Wink expressed a desire, and I don’t know how realistic it is, but some have wondered if we can somehow get an insurance policy, that we can insure our ability to show our horses. Is that possible or not?

BH-Hey, anything is possible when you put willing minds and willing people together, anything is possible.

CHP-He made the analogy of the baseball player insuring his arm and I thought, I don’t know if that’s doable, but wow! That’s the end of my very long list of questions.

JH-Have we worn you out?

BH-No, no. I could go another round.


JH-Well, we definitely know there’s a future for the walking horse industry, and I think that’s what we all want to know.

BH-Exactly and let’s hope it’s a bright future.

JH-Thank you both for being with us.