Copyright WHR 2007

By Christy Howard Parsons

A hot summer day saw a standing room only crowd of professional horse trainers convene for their most important decision of the year. As each trainer verified his membership upon entrance, they also received a handout coming in to the meeting highlighting the reasons the trainers might be reluctant to sign the 2007-2009 Operating Plan with the United States Department of Agriculture [see sidebar Changes in New 2007-2009 Operating Plan].

Bill Hawks, CEO of AgWorks Solutions was the man of the hour as WHTA President Wink Groover asked him to outline his reasons for recommending that the trainers sign the Operating Plan with the amendments. Hawks gave a detailed presentation, fielded questions, and won the trust of the majority of trainers in the room.

The 147 voting members that were present cast their ballots and the trainers decided to follow Hawks’ advice and sign the plan with a vote count of 108 to 43 with 7 ballots not submitted.

Groover called the meeting to order and thanked the large crowd for coming. He asked the group to consider the issue before them and to have an honest discussion. “But whatever the majority of us agree on today, let’s hold our heads high and all go along with the same thing. Let’s not have any bickering, arguing and splintering among us,” said Groover.

Groover introduced the topic at hand by reiterating his commitment to having the entire trainer membership vote on the decision. He bragged on the support he’s received from the trainers by putting their horses in the ring in good condition this season so far.

“That has made Bill Hawks able to do his job,” said Groover. “I want you to keep in mind, that the gentleman to my right [Bill Hawks], has been our savior this year, along with all of you. He has reasons he has told me that he thinks we need to sign the Operating Plan. I’m not smart enough to tell you why. But I am smart enough to tell you that this person has made this one of our better show seasons, and he is telling us that this is the thing to do.”

Hawks began by repeating Groover and adding his thanks to the trainers for the job they’ve done this year. “Early on when Wink and I were first talking about making some improvements, I told him I can’t do my job unless your trainers and your people do your job. We started this in late February and in early March, we had different meetings. I went to my first horse show in Monroe, LA, and I have to tell you, I saw some horses that didn’t present themselves too well, but by in large they were good horses. The next show was the National Trainers Show, and we all know what happened there. I won’t belabor that, but we had a successful show. I’ve been to several shows since that time, and I have to say that the horses I saw in Monroe, LA and the horses I saw on Saturday night were entirely different. You are doing your job. You are presenting horses that I think can be presented most anywhere. So you’ve done your job, now it’s time for me to do my job, and that’s what I am trying to do,” began Hawks.

“There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the Operating Plan. Should we sign? Shouldn’t we sign? Are there parts we don’t like? There’s no one who would say that this plan is 100% perfect. My first interaction with the Department was to first suggest we go back under the old Operating Plan while we negotiate the new one. They wouldn’t do that as others had already signed the new plan. You told me that the probation period was a big deal for you all so that was an issue I addressed. After the season started, we started getting federal cases filed. You all know those are out there. I was asked if we should happen to sign the Operating Plan, can we go back and get those back under the Plan? Then we get to the infamous scar rule booklet, and the photographs that started circulating a few weeks ago. There were issues with that. I don’t think any of you in this room have had any input in that process,” Hawks continued.

Last Friday, Hawks returned from an assignment out of the country to meet again with the Department. “As a result of our interaction with the Department. I’m going to read you a copy of an email sent to me last Friday afternoon:

“Mr. Hawks, As we discussed earlier today, here is what we are proposing in hopes of reaching an understanding that will lead to your clients signing the Operating Plan.

“We would agree to include a probationary period provision, in the form communicated earlier by Dr. DeHaven, in the Operating Plan.

“We would move very quickly to evaluate the potential violation cases that have occurred in non-signatory shows this season.

“Our evaluation would classify the cases in three categories:

One category would include the most serious violations that will require a full Federal investigation and formal complaint; a second category would include those that appear to merit no action at all; a third category would be those that appear to merit sanctions typically applied under the Operating Plan.

“While we cannot retroactively apply the Operating Plan to non-signatories, we can determine whether we would propose sanctions similar to those called for under the Operating Plan in light of the circumstances of a given case. If that appears to be so, we can order a similar sanction under our authority. In cases where the alleged violator has already complied with the sanction, such compliance could be deemed adequate compliance with the sanction we would order under our authority.

“It is our intention to complete this evaluation of cases as soon as possible to remove the uncertainty that exists. We would notify the alleged violators which category applies to them and seek to quickly reach agreements with the alleged violators on the cases falling into the third category.

“I must emphasize that we cannot say how many cases would fall into each category. History seems to show that most cases would fall into the third category, but we must review all of the current cases on their own merits.

“On another matter, although we have completed an initial draft of a program brochure, we anticipate review and revisions to continue for an extended time. It is unlikely that we will publish the brochure soon. We will seek appropriate opportunities to gain industry input before we publish a final version. I hope this is helpful.”

Hawks read the above email and summarized, “In essence, they have agreed to putting the scar rule violation back under the Operating Plan. If you’ve already served an appropriate suspension, it will be time served. We hear a lot about double jeopardy. They are saying they won’t pursue these cases except for the most serious. How many of you have had cases written so far this year ? How many of those are scar rule violations? How many of you have already served a suspension? For most of you, that will be time served,” explained Hawks.

Hawks was questioned by the audience as to who signed the email. The email was prepared by attorneys following meetings with the top Department officials and as such was not signed by a member of the Department. Hawks was peppered with questions, until Wink Groover interceded.

“This man didn’t come here to be abused.”

The questions continued about whether Friends of the Sound Horse, another industry HIO, would support the amendments to the plan.

“They will back out,” came claims from the back of the room.

Hawks responded, “They may. I don’t represent the other groups. I represent you and I am trying to do what is in your best interests. The fact of the matter is the government is willing to work with us. On my business card, it says ‘Working together works‘. If you’re not willing to work with us, to allow us the opportunity to do this, I have a question to ask you. What kind of show season have you had this year? What do you think you would have had?”
“As Wink says, I don’t need to be doing this. For years, you were not viewed in the best light. You were mischaracterized. We have an opportunity now to come forth and say we want to do the right thing. We want to put good horses in the ring. We want to be compliant with the Horse Protection Act. My job is to give you the facts, tell you the landscape as I see it. But it’s your job to make the decision. Frankly, I don’t care if you take my advice. But I know I’m giving you what I think is best for the industry We can’t do anything for the trainers that doesn’t help the owners, you can’t segment this industry. You’ve got to look at it in a broad perspective. What’s in the best interest of the overall industry is what we have to look at. We have been able to open doors, to tell your story to convince some people in Washington, that you are doing the right thing,” Hawks continued.

The question came if the trainers are doing a good job already, why can’t they continue to do that and not sign the Operating Plan. “What’s the difference in if we sign the plan or not?”

Wink Groover took the mike to address the question.

“The only difference right here is Mr. Hawks when we have a problem. We could have had a problem in Jackson, Miss., but Hawks intevened. We had a major problem in Florida but he kept everything in line. We probably haven’t really needed him since that time, because the VMOs have leveled out and tried to do a good job. If we don’t sign this plan, and the VMOs continue like they have for the last three months, then we don’t need Bill Hawks, But this is the first time in our history that we have had someone who can open doors in high levels in the Department. The Department has asked him to get us to sign the plan. If we don’t do that, why should they listen to him and listen to his influence. If we don’t sign the plan, we don’t lose Bill Hawks, but he loses his credibility with the Department. Then when we get on the phone like I have this summer when we have a problem. I don’t know who he calls. He is asking us to do something. We have to trust that he knows what he is doing,” pleaded Groover.

Groover explained that the WHTA board highly recommends signing the plan, and someone in the crowd suggested that the discussion should end with that.

“I don’t agree. I want to make sure that everyone here has the opportunity to do what they think is best for the industry,” said Groover.

Hal Newman asked “what is the Department’s reason for wanting us to sign the plan?”

Hawks responded, “The Department’s logic is to have as many HIOs sign the plan as possible, because they have limited resources. If you have an agreement, then there are more eyes and ears enforcing the Horse Protection Act. It spreads their resources out.”
Hawks also explained that he felt AgWorks Solutions should be working on more long-range planning for the industry and public relations repair, but they had been unable to do that up to this point. “It’s been one crisis after another,” said Hawks.

“If I didn’t believe in ya’ll, If I didn’t believe in your industry, I wouldn’t be here. Valerie Ragan and I agreed we would do nothing for the money. We want to do things we believe in and have fun. Sometimes this has not been as much fun, but we do believe in you,” said Hawks.

Questions continued, but Groover eventually interjected as some trainers got up to leave the room. “We don’t want to get into such a long discussion, that people who are voting members don’t get the opportunity to vote. Let’s not get into such a long drawn out discussion that people leave us,” said Groover.

Ray Gilmer spoke up. “Ya’ll need to forget about the scar rule and the penalties and all that. The reason we need to sign the Operating Plan is to get our credibility back. I went to Washington to address the American Horse Council. They think nothing has changed in 30 years and that we are still training them the way we did. We are perceived as rogues because we don’t want to sign the Operating Plan. Our enemy is not the government, it’s the little old lady reading the newspaper in Oregon. The first step to fixing that is signing the Operating Plan. It’s not perfect. It can be changed. We have to work on a lot of other issues. If we don’t sign this Operating Plan, it’s another nail in our coffin. We are having a good show season, but nobody knows that but us and a few VMOs,” said Gilmer.

Hawks addressed a question about the possibility that the USDA’s Horse Protection budget may be increased from $500,000 to $5million.

“I may have to run out the back door when I say this, but I think you want them to have more money. The way you are putting horses in the ring, I would welcome VMOs to be at the shows. I wish they were at every show with the way you are putting them in the ring and the way the DQPs are doing their job….I wouldn’t worry about whether they have 500,000 or $5million. Let’s do our job and work with them to move forward,” answered Hawks.

Winky Groover also suggested the trainers sign the plan. “This man was against the plan when we voted last time. You all know that. We look like a bunch of idiots when we load up when the government shows up. We cannot survive that again. We look guilty when we leave. The press and everybody else are down on us. Please sign the plan,” pleaded Winky Groover.

Jamie Bradshaw called for the question and it was unanimously approved to proceed with the election. The ethics committee collected the ballots by rows and moved to the Board room to count the ballots. Marcia Allison returned with the vote count and the trainers voted to sign the Plan two to one.

When the vote was announced, Bill Hawks thanked the trainers that remained. “Let me say thank you for the vote. It does give us the ability to continue to do the things we’ve been doing. Are we miracle workers? Absolutely not. Thank you for the job you are doing . You are empowering us to be strong advocates for you. You took my recommendation. That puts the pressure on me. Thank you very much,” said Hawks.