Copyright WHR 2008

By Jeffrey Howard

FRANKLIN, Tenn. – The Walking Horse Trainers’ Association (WHTA) held its annual membership meeting on December 5, 2008 at the Cool Springs Marriott.  The trainers reflected on 2008 and immediately looked to 2009 with the election of its officers. 

The nominating committee, chaired by Rollie Beard recommended a slate of Link Webb, President, Mickey McCormick, 1st Vice-President and David Landrum, 2nd Vice-President.  These three gentlemen ran unopposed and will serve in 2009.  The committee also recommended three gentlemen for the positions open on the board of directors.  Jeff Givens, Mike McCormick and Wade Hickman were on the slate and nominations were allowed from the floor.  After the votes were tallied the new board members were Rollie Beard, Chris Bobo and John Allan Callaway.
Webb then led the discussion to the USDA.  “It has been a pretty tough year for everybody.  The USDA has strengthened their enforcement over the last half of the year,” said Webb.  “We have to get a better level of communication with the USDA to better understand the criteria they are looking for when they are pulling horses from our stalls.  It looks to me as if this is just a random inspection,” continued Webb.  Webb did put to rest rumors that when the USDA has checked horses in stalls that they have been inspecting the horses there and leaving tickets in the stalls.  “To my knowledge in most cases they have led the horses to the inspection area and done the inspection per the protocol at that time,” answered Webb.
Frankie Roark asked if the USDA, “can legally come into our stalls once we have rented these for our use at the show?”  Webb answered, “Yes, once you put that horse on your trailer to transport him and leave your barn you are subject to inspection at any point in time.”
Webb continued, “I would like to commend all of you that have shown horses over the last couple of months.  It shows we can do it and do it to their (USDA) satisfaction.  We have to trust ourselves and we ought to be proud of ourselves.  We need to take time to look at what we did instead of just focusing on what we haven’t done.”
Paul Livingston asked about the “recourse for Veterinary Medical Officers (VMO) not following protocol and thus not doing their job correctly.”  Webb couldn’t give a definite answer to this question and mentioned the challenges with Rachel Cezar not being able to attend and watch the inspections at every show.  “We need to have video and evaluate the performance of each of our DQPs and USDA VMOs,” said Webb.
To this point, Webb also acknowledged that the WHTA needs to develop a better line of communication with the USDA themselves, not their representatives and have a relationship and understanding with the VMOs working the shows.  David Landrum pointed out, “the person that replaces Lonnie Messick needs to hit the ground running and develop a personal relationship with the VMOs checking the horses.  That person needs to be confident in his program and his DQPs and sell that to the USDA when he visits with them.”
Webb pointed out, “we need to quit being so confrontational with the VMOs and USDA.  Whether we like it or not, they are here and are charged with regulating our industry.”  Russ Thompson recommended inviting the USDA to the general membership meeting so that the trainers could hear directly from those charged with regulating them.  “At this point the only time we see them is when he bites,” said Thompson.  Many asked Webb to invite them to training sessions and to the barns to see the horses and what they can do.  Webb agreed it was a good idea but reminded his fellow trainers, “ultimately they set the bar and we have to comply.”
Webb urged, “we all have to do a better job presenting our horses on Saturday night and continue to be aware of our surroundings.  We are doing a better job but need to continue to improve.”  He also commended show management in Tunica, Miss., for not allowing the entries of a person who had already received multiple tickets at that event.
The perception of the padded horse in the inspection area was also discussed and David Landrum pointed out, “we have to do something about the fact that every padded horse that is led up there, the VMOs assume something is wrong with that horse.”  Webb introduced one idea to help in the training.  He asked to have a clinic in the middle of the summer in addition to the one in January since the horses look differently in the summer than in the winter.
The relationship with Bill Hawks, a consultant to the WHTA from AgWorks Solutions was questioned from the membership but Webb asked for their patience as the board will sit down with Hawks at the next meeting and evaluate his past performance and future role.
Webb also addressed the restructuring of the NHSC and reiterated that it is moving forward.  “I am leaning heavily on Dr. Mike Harry to keep it going forward and he has hit some challenges and it is going slower than we want,” said Webb.  “There is a perception out there that the trainers are blocking this change; that is simply not true.  All of us on this board are for the change and realize that we need this change in the NHSC,” concluded Webb.
“However I don’t see it being changed in 2009 so we need to hire a person to replace Lonnie’s position and continue to move forward,” said Webb.  Webb did say the board voted and will ask the NHSC to implement a drug-testing program in 2009.  “We are the only breed that doesn’t currently drug test and we need to be in front of this and help make the policies that we will eventually have to follow instead of waiting for someone else to do and us follow,” urged Webb.
A horse at the Southern Championships was inspected by the USDA at the show and had blood drawn for testing by the VMOS.  This was the first time this had been done to the knowledge of the board.  Russ Thompson informed the members that in California all of their entries are subject to state run drug testing at the shows. “The first offense is a $2000 fine and three years probation,” said Thompson.  Carlyle Johnson urged the board to test for specific drugs instead of classes of drugs because of the danger with classes changing after metabolism.
Mack Motes asked Webb to talk with the Celebration about the criteria of judges not being allowed to have a ticket in 2008 of any kind and thus moving forward anyone that had a ticket from 2008 and beyond not being qualified to judge the Celebration.  “I think they went too far on this criteria and we need to address who will be judging our horses down the road and if they are qualified to judge,” said Motes.  Webb agreed to talk with the Celebration and Dr. Doyle Meadows about this and would report back to the membership.  Motes agreed, “a sore horse ticket is one thing but a high-band or shoeing violation is something totally different.”
Webb also informed the membership about the change of the licensing program that will be coming in 2009.  “We have formed a committee to look at the current list of trainers and clean that list up and then come up with a criteria to become a licensed trainer,” said Webb.  These ideas were discussed in the board meeting the prior day and can be seen in that article also posted on this site.  Click here to view that story.
The operating plan was also discussed and triggered many strong opinions from the members.  The current plan is effective through the 2009 show season but negotiations on the 2010 plan will begin in the coming weeks.  The ability to opt out of the plan is an option the NHSC could choose.
“We need to gather the facts and get the pros and cons of signing it and not signing it so we can have a basis for our decision,” said Steve Aymett.  Motes jumped in, “I can tell you that if you don’t sign it a scar rule (once prosecuted by the USDA) would be eight months on the first offense.”  Wink Groover pointed out that is only the case if you lose in court on that scar rule.
Landrum asked, “I just wonder if they are writing tickets they wouldn’t normally write if we weren’t under the operating plan.  They have also proven they can go back on any case they want and prosecute it themselves.”  He continued, “I don’t know but I think we should do our homework before we sign it again.”  Thompson pointed out, “If you don’t sign it they will beat you down over the course of the year.”
Another issue Webb addressed is that of the suspended trainers and owners being allowed on the show grounds.  “They (USDA and other HIOs) do not want these trainers and owners allowed on the grounds,” said Webb.  It was pointed out that current regulations allow for those on the suspension list to “participate as spectators only.”  Webb simply wanted to point out to the members that this topic will be addressed soon in the HIO meetings with the USDA.
Allan Callaway stood and thanked Webb for his service during the course of the year.  “Link is trying to do the right thing and I commend him for that,” said Callaway.  The trainers agree as they gave Webb an ovation for the job he has done.
Landrum summed it up this way.  “I commend the trainers.  In 2008 we have agreed to the White Paper, the restructuring of the NHSC and have now asked to implement a drug-testing program.  This proves we want to do the right thing and are moving forward.”
This past year saw many ups and downs.  The upcoming year will bring challenges and the current economic state of the country won’t help out, but if progress continues to be made in the NHSC and programs involving regulation, we will prosper and benefit from these tough times.