Copyright WHR 2006

By Christy Howard Parsons

Dr. Chester Gipson and Dr. Mike Tuck from the USDA held the sixth of six listening sessions for the Walking Horse industry on Monday, September 11, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The session was held at Miller & Martin, PLLC, where industry advocate Linda Motes Hill is an attorney.

Dr. Gipson opened the session by explaining the purpose of these listening sessions. “This is more than a listening session; it's a hearing session. We hear what you tell us and the 2007 Operating Plan will reflect the feelings of the general public at large,” explained Gipson.

Gipson was very clear about the USDA's role in the industry. “The industry is responsible for compliance . . . when voluntary compliance fails, we will enforce the Horse Protection Act. You are at the crossroads. We are not going backwards - we are going forwards with horse protection. You have to decide which direction you are going,” said Gipson.

Gipson addressed several past issues of concern. He said at one time there was a concern about the quality of the veterinary medical officers. The USDA addressed that concern by paring down their force considerably and by only using VMOs with equine experience and veterinarians with the “personality to deal with situations of conflict.”

“Our employees have carried themselves respectfully in these situations,” said Gipson.

Gipson also said he felt that at one time he was concerned that science was missing from the horse protection program. He felt that the USDA had also addressed that concern. “We are just getting started with technology. The sniffer is just the beginning,” said Gipson.

He elaborated by saying that he believed that people want to comply with the law and to do what is right. Thus the USDA has been using the sniffer for educational purposes initially, by swabbing horses at horse shows and sending letters to noncompliant owners. Then if someone still won't comply, the USDA will have “no options” but to enforce the law.

Gipson also discussed the algometer and thermography as future tools for enforcement. Dr. Gipson elaborated about thermography as a tool to detect pressure shoeing.

“Out of everything that can happen to a horse, the worse by far is pressure shoeing. If I have anything to do with it, these people will be out of the business on a lifetime suspension,” said Gipson.

In discussing future technology, Gipson said, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

The Tennessee Walking Horse industry responded to Gipson's comments at this listening session in a more professional and organized manner than they have at prior listening sessions. Both David Landrum, President of the Walking Horse Trainers Association and David Pruett, President of the Walking Horse Owners Association and Chairman of the National Horse Show Commission read prepared statements into the record which have been reproduced here in their entirety.

Mack Motes was the first public speaker who began by showing a picture from the 1975 Celebration of a presentation to a winning horse who had visible scars on the front of both front feet to show the audience how far the Tennessee Walking Horse industry has come in its enforcement efforts.

“We have come so far, we can't see any scars. We have to get down and feel for them now,” said Motes. “I'm not saying we are in 100% compliance, but only 10 horses were allegedly in violation of the law at this year's Celebration,” said Motes. “There were 19 allegedly sore in 2005. We've cut our violations by 50%.”

“If the horses in 1975 had been in the shape they are today, we wouldn't have a Horse Protection Act,” explained Motes.

“You have to know where you came from to know where you are,” concluded Motes.

Other industry advocates spoke in defense of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. Herbert Derickson, Sheryl Crawford, Jim Pace, Bob Ramsbottom, Jerry Harris all made sincere presentations in our defense.

There were three speakers who disagreed about the state of the industry today. Lucille Davis was critical of the National Horse Show Commission and challenged horse owners to not live in denial. Nancy Fincher was also critical of the NHSC and warned everyone who loves the Tennessee Walking Horse to come together before animal rights activists spoke up with “1000 voices for every one we can muster.”

Nathaniel Jackson also voiced his concerns likening the TWH industry to “a strong willed child” who had finally gotten the whipping they deserved.

National Horse Show Commission Executive Vice President Lonnie Messick also addressed the group to dispute some of the statements made by these three.

“The NHSC has stepped up our enforcement of the law. The scar rule violations are double last year. Our total violations are up over 50%. We are giving members of WHTA, TWHBEA, and WHOA tickets. We are doing our job, and yes, we are regulating the people who pay our salaries,” said Messick.

“We are strong on pressure shoeing,” said Messick. “We have had training on hoof testers to determine pressure shoeing for many years. We have written 5 or 6 pressure shod tickets. Two of those went to hearings and were upheld. The first pressure shod horse we wrote resulted in a lifetime suspension, and despite coming back and appealing many times, we have always stayed strong,” said Messick.

He also challenged the three speakers to contact him when they witnessed abuse. “I am open for anyone to call and let me know when someone is violating the law.”

Linda Motes Hill, daughter of trainer Mack Motes, reversed her decision to not speak at the listening session that she had volunteered to host. In a very emotional presentation, she reminisced about prancing around the barn with Link Webb and other friends with chains on their boots to simulate the “big lick.”

“There is not another group of people who love horses more than the Walking Horse trainers that I know,” said a teary Hill.

“I'm not telling you there's not a problem. People mess up sometimes. Walking Horse trainers mess up,” she continued. “The USDA has been in my vocabulary all my life and I've never heard anything but good things about these people. They are not here to put us out of business.”

“Dr. Gipson does have the Tennessee Walking Horse industry's best interests in mind,” said Hill.

Dr. Gipson then took the floor to answer questions from the field. Nathaniel Jackson questioned Gipson about pressure he is reportedly receiving from politicians.

“There is a lot of misinformation floating around,” said Gipson. “I personally received no pressure from anywhere to move away from the issues at the Celebration.”

“Everyone I have dealt with has been professional. There has been a letter sent to the Secretary of Agriculture and there will be an official response after it has been reviewed.”

“Washington is the worst place in the world to bring a problem to resolve it. Usually this is where they begin,” Gipson warned.

“These conflicts need to be resolved in the field, and I'm not going to interfere with that.”

Gipson answered Jerry Harris' question abou the scar rule interpretations.

“It will be interpreted as is being done currently, but we may need to update our literature,” said Gipson referring to the USDA pamphlet Understanding the Scar Rule.

Final questions were from Evelyn Krippendorf who asked if we could rely on the current scar rule manual, whether the recently cancelled scar rule clinic would be rescheduled and why it was cancelled.

Gipson responded that the manual was being revised, that the clinic would be rescheduled and that it was cancelled after inappropriate comments were made toward Dr. Todd Behre.

“I didn't feel comfortable putting Dr. Behre back in the field until there has been a cooling off period,” said Gipson.

Gipson concluded the session by thanking everyone for their honest input. He reiterated that he had heard what was said and the issues discussed would be addressed and clarified in the new Operating Plan.

“Working together works,” said Gipson.