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To Sign or Not To Sign?



An Editorial by David L. Howard


            These are confusing and challenging times in our sport…and its very future hangs in the balance. To sign the operating plan or not to sign-that is the question.


            The Commission has taken a stance in opposition to signing the plan and has called into question any sanctions the USDA might take on violations at their shows. The USDA has, as recently as this week and consistently all year long, stated that violations occurring at NHSC shows where the VMO’s are present will result in federal cases.


            If the USDA means what they say, then 30 or more cases are already in the pipeline from the first few shows. Also, each case can result in charges to the trainer, the owner and the exhibitor which means potentially more than 60 cases already. In a phone conversation with Dr. Ron DeHaven and Chester Gipson last Thursday, they estimated that 75-80 percent of the cases will have sufficient evidence and will be filed in the coming months.


            The USDA’s position is “I told you so” and a careful examination of the records bears that out. We posted a story on April 12 of this year stating their position and, despite what some people have said, their position has not changed. The NHSC, relying on  the advise of Bill Hawks, has steadfastly refused to sign the plan, although they agree with the amendments dealing with the probation period.


            The amended plan now sits in limbo until the NHSC tells the USDA they will sign the plan with the approved amendments. The USDA’s position is that until the NHSC agrees to sign the plan as amended, there is no reason to move forward.


            The USDA has made clear that a 2007-2009 plan is in existence and those HIO’s that do not sign it “must solely fall under the purview of the HPA and Regulations. Without the OP, the USDA maintains the primary role for the enforcement of the HPA and will initiate Federal cases against owners, trainers and exhibitors associated with any horse found to be in violation of the HPA.” This is a direct quote from the USDA.


            The amendment dealing with the so-called probation period is apparently not much of a factor based on an analysis of the NHSC records for the last three years. Few if any people would have qualified for the enhanced penalty under the new probation proposal.


            As far as “double jeopardy”, that is exactly what is happening at shows sanctioned by HIO’s that have not signed the Operating Plan. In the phone conversation with Dr. DeHaven and Dr. Gipson, I asked if the NHSC did not sign the Operating Plan but imposed penalties consistent with the plan would they still bring federal case if those individual violators served the penalty imposed by NHSC. Without a moment’s hesitation, DeHaven said yes.

            By way of example, there were 200 violations at last year’s Celebration that this year would face “double jeopardy” if the Celebration affiliated with an HIO that had not signed the plan. And remember those 200 cases could increase threefold if the owner, trainer and exhibitor were different individuals and were all charged.


            The statement had been made that the USDA can bring a case even if an HIO imposes a penalty-that is true but a look at history bears out the USDA’s position on this matter. And I quote “When a horse is found in violation of the HPA, HIO’s that are signatories  to the Horse Protection Operating Plan may impose penalties as outlined in that plan, and USDA will not initiate a federal case against the owner, trainer and exhibitor except under very exceptional circumstances.”


            A number of individuals have cited the Herbert Derickson case as being “double jeopardy” and many of us in the industry worked long and hard to have that case dismissed. In reality, the USDA did not charge Herbert with violation of the HPA but instead they charged he did not honor his suspension because he entered horses at a show in violation of his penalty. Herbert settled the case.


            In addition to my efforts on Herbert’s behalf , the NHSC in the persons of Niels Holch and Craig Evans championed Herbert’s cause. They even went to Washington and met personally with USDA Under Secretary Bill Hawks to plead the case. In a letter dated August 25, 2005, Mr. Hawks denied that request and Herbert’s case moved forward.


            Everyone has to make their own decision relative to signing the Operating Plan and I have no quarrel with whatever choice an individual makes. What troubles me is that I believe that many trainers and owners are either being misled or are misinformed.



A Personal Note


            Whether the NHSC does or does not sign the Operation Plan has very little impact on me personally. Since I serve on the Celebration Board, I cannot own Tennessee Walking Horses and therefore my family cannot show horses.


            I can continue to operate the Walking Horse Report and World Champion Horse Equipment whether the Operating Plan is signed or not. I just hope everyone presented the facts so they can make an informed decision.


            As Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Celebration, my responsibility is to the horse show and the owners, trainers and exhibitors who have supported it for almost 70 years. That is not a responsibility I welcome or take lightly.


            The Celebration sent a letter explaining their position to the NHSC last Thursday and that letter will be available shortly.

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