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What now?

By Jeffrey Howard

Get ready to show! As we turn the calendar to 2021, show season is just around the corner and despite what you might have heard or read on the internet and social media, the show season will be fine. There have been no changes to the law that effect our shows or horses in any way.

That does not mean that we don’t continue to face challenges and the upcoming years will continue to provide the industry with potential changes. But as I’ve written about before and in my discussions with so many of you, change is needed and change is welcomed as we move our industry forward. Good days lie ahead and in the meantime we are going to enjoy our horses and continue to have horse shows.

From a legislative standpoint, no bill passed Congress that affects the Tennessee Walking Horse, Racking Horse or Spotted Saddle Horse. In the final spending bill the USDA did receive an additional $1M to enforce the HPA, bringing the total to $2M for enforcement. I would expect much of this additional money to be used for attendance at horse shows and a continued emphasis on objective testing methods by the USDA.

What is the future of the PAST Act and a legislative change? That is to some degree uncertain at this point but nothing has even been introduced as of now. You can rest assured that Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will push for reintroduction of the PAST Act however Animal Wellness Action, who did the lion’s share of the lobbying on it, has stated publicly they will not push the PAST Act in its original form. Also, several members of Congress have also expressed a desire to only move a solution that also has industry and other stakeholder approval. During 2021, there will be movement in this area but there will not be any legislative solution accomplished in 2021.

The regulatory agenda is a more pressing issue for the industry but again there is uncertainty with the exact process and route this will take. As we all know, the democrats control the house, the senate and the Presidency. As a result of President Biden’s victory, former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is once again the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. If he is confirmed, he will then assemble a team and begin to pursue their regulatory agenda.

Yes, there is still the pending rule from when Vilsack was previously at the department under the Obama administration but it is not a certainty that this rule will move forward. Why is that the case? Well, several factors, some of which we knew previously but also some that have just recently developed. First, the data used to formulate and justify much of the rule is now old and stale and new data since that rule was finalized has dramatically changed and should be considered as part of this process.

Secondly, the National Academies of Science (NAS) just recently published their study and findings on the current inspection process and made recommendations to improve that system. Many of those recommendations would require additional rulemaking and would make sense to be included in a new rule or amended version of the current rule.

There are other facets of the rule that the industry was and still remains poised to challenge in court. That lawsuit, which has been updated recently, would be filed should the existing rule be finalized. The industry leadership doesn’t want to go this route and would prefer being a part of the solution and to help provide input to allow any rule to accomplish the objectives of enforcement of the HPA, the elimination of soring and ensuring fair competition.

In my personal opinion there will be additional rulemaking coming but the existing rule that has been sitting for four years will not go forward in its existing form. That is not a guarantee but many people smarter than I also agree that this would not be the best course of action for USDA to pursue.

As for the NAS study, I do think it is important and very noteworthy that this was a joint recommendation of the USDA and industry. It is not widely talked about nor is the industry given any credit by NAS, but USDA and the industry have worked together quite well over the past several years to improve enforcement of the HPA. It hasn’t been perfect by any means, but enforcement has been better.

The NAS study recommended many things including well-documented industry and USDA positions of increasing the use of scientific testing in inspection. It is imperative that we embrace technology and utilize methods that are the gold standard in all other competitive show breeds. The committee also was critical of the current scar rule language and in fact called the current rule “unenforceable.” The USDA has not currently publicly commented on the study or the committee’s recommendations on scar rule but that should be coming in the near future.

The committee also plainly stated that palpation and a physical examination of the horse is necessary and that palpation is a method needed in determining lameness and/or soreness. Something of note here is that the committee was not tasked with determining penalties nor deciphering between what should disqualify a horse from competing versus subjecting that trainer/owner to a potential federal case with federal penalties. The committee during their briefing of sponsors did communicate that those differences should be looked at but that it was not part of the scope of the study.

The industry should embrace the study, look at its recommendations and along with the USDA begin the process of implementing these suggestions. We must not only embrace the scientific, objecting testing but our horses must pass these inspections. We will not change any public perception of our horse unless through objective testing we prove our horses to be compliant with the HPA.

I also recently met with the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association board of directors and feel confident that they understand the current landscape and what they are up against. I know they are looking at what they can do to improve the situation and best position the industry to move forward. They understand change is needed and also understand that we don’t need to wait for someone else to define that change, but rather get ahead and make changes that are in the best interest of the horse, horse trainers and owners. I am optimistic they can be a part of the solution and will bring forth great ideas.

This year will be interesting for sure. We will be watching the legislative and rulemaking processes closely as well as hoping that the Covid-19 situation continues to improve and that vaccinations allow us to get back to normal.

But please know, our horse has and will survive. I truly believe it can and will thrive. It is too good and all knowledgeable equine professionals agree with how great the Tennessee Walking Horse is. So, what can you do? First, get ready to show and support the horse shows that are so vital to the industry. Secondly, welcome change and commit to being part of a solution instead of continuing to discuss the problem and argue with ourselves. We are one horse, one industry and one team. We don’t have to always agree to get to the best solution.

I look forward to this show season and seeing you at a horse show soon.

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