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USDA: Target on Welfare or The Celebration?



By Jeffrey Howard 

The USDA continues to assert that it does not target The Celebration in enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, however statistics tell a much different story.  Inspections of Tennessee Walking Horses, conducted by both industry inspectors and federal inspectors, are highly subjective and have been documented to produce many false positives.  

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in its ruling against the USDA on mandated penalties, clearly stated that inspections are “more art than science” and produce a large number of false positives.  The Fifth Circuit went on to say, “Inspectors face significant difficulties distinguishing violators from non-violators.”

However, if the problem with the USDA’s inconsistency was constant across all shows, the subjective nature of the inspections would be a plausible explanation, but it is not. The data clearly shows some other factors are in play when it comes to The Celebration, the world championship and Super Bowl of the Walking Horse Industry.

In 2015, prior to The Celebration the USDA VMOs were present for 4,397 inspections and those VMOs took information on a total of 52 potential scar rule violations, a 1.2% rate.  However, at The Celebration evening performances the VMOs took information on 127 potential scar rule violations in 1,217 inspections, a 10.4% rate.  USDA VMOs found evidence of potential scar rules at a 766% higher rate at The Celebration versus at shows prior to The Celebration.

Even more discouraging, the USDA VMOs disqualified 163 horses during The Celebration that passed inspection by the SHOW HIO, a USDA-certified Horse Industry Organization.  Those horses had passed inspection 750 times prior to The Celebration with the USDA VMOs in attendance for 470 of those inspections.

The USDA has stated two reasons for the increase.  First, they stated the use of new equipment, most notably thermography, at The Celebration was a reason for the increase.  However when asked about the details of the new equipment, the USDA acknowledged no new equipment had been used at the 2014 or 2015 Celebration.  Furthermore thermography was used at several shows prior to The Celebration, and the rate VMOs found potential scar rule violations was 3%, a far cry from the 10.4% found at The Celebration.

The second reason given by APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea was the USDA’s experience that owners and trainers were more willing to try and get a horse that has been sored through inspection at The Celebration.  If the statistical anomalies were simply on potential sensitivity violations, Shea’s response could be viable, but the statistical variance is on the scar rule, meaning a scar exists on the pasterns of the horse.  Veterinarians agree that scars don’t appear at just one show per year with no evidence of them either prior to or after that show.

Follow the same trend after The Celebration.  The focus lies on three multi-day, high-profile horse shows in Asheville, NC, Decatur, AL and Tunica, MS.  At these three multi-day shows the same USDA VMOs were present that were also present at The Celebration.  In Asheville, held October 8-10, less than 5 weeks after the conclusion of The Celebration, 28 horses went through inspection that had information taken and were disqualified from showing at The Celebration for scar rule and all 28 passed inspection.

In Decatur, the number was 25 and in Tunica another 28 horses that passed inspection were disqualified for scar rule at The Celebration by USDA VMOs.  In three horse shows held in the two months after the completion of The Celebration, 81 horses passed inspection and had no signs of scarring that were disqualified for having scars at the world championship horse show.

After the Celebration the USDA VMOs were present for 2,061 inspections and those VMOs took information on a total of 59 potential scar rule violations, a 2.8% rate.  Inspections prior to the Celebration found 1.2% and after the Celebration 2.8%, yet during those 10 nights of The Celebration VMOs found 10.4%.

Is The Celebration targeted by the USDA?  Is the influence of Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on the USDA so strong that VMOs change their inspection techniques to harm The Celebration?  

Or better yet, is it too much to ask the USDA to sit down with the industry and expert veterinarians to come up with new, objective inspection protocols to eliminate the uncertainty?

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