By Jeffrey Howard

Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield wrote a letter to USDA Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack requesting USDA “aggressively inspect” horses at The Celebration (click here to view complete letter).    Secretary Vilsack promptly replied to Whitfield promising the USDA would “exercise its Federal authority to the maximum extent possible.” (Click here to view complete letter)  Neither Congressman Whitfield nor Secretary Vilsack attended this year’s Celebration.  

Secretary Vilsack also talked with Whitfield prior to the show, however the content of that conversation was not made available.  “Regarding the phone call to the Congressman, because our staff was not there during the call, I cannot tell you what was said during that call,” said Tanya Espinosa, Public Affairs Specialist with USDA-APHIS.

Violations found by USDA inspectors at the 2014 Celebration almost tripled over the previous year.  The USDA has stated that the increase in violations at this year’s show was due to the increased use of technology, “We have not changed our inspection procedures.  However, we are using more advanced technological tools to make sure we identify horses that are of concern for being sored and examining these horses closer to ensure that only sound horses showed during the Celebration,” said Espinosa.  When asked what new technology was used, the USDA admitted that no new technology was used in inspections at this year’s Celebration.  

Since the technology was the same and these same horses had been showing all season in front of the USDA,  perhaps the rise in violations during the subjective portion of the exam was the result of the  communication “exercise its federal authority to the maximum extent possible“  from Secretary Vilsack to Whitfield. 

Interestingly Congressman Whitfield and Secretary Vilsack share a close relationship with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  HSUS is the strongest proponent of the PAST Act which would destroy the Tennessee Walking Horse breed and its national championship.  Congressman Whitfield’s wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, a paid lobbyist for Humane Society Legislative Fund, has lobbied extensively for the PAST Act introduced by her husband.  Congressman Whitfield is also currently being investigated on two ethics violations.

Secretary Vilsack’s wife, Christie Vilsack ran for Congress in Iowa in 2012 and according to the Federal Election Commission the Humane Society Legislative Fund contributed over $750,000 to help in her campaign.  Now here is where their actions get close to crossing ethical boundaries. 

HSUS donated $1,000 to her campaign but the check was never cashed by Vilsack.  For some reason, Vilsack was hesitant to have a direct donation from HSUS.  Unable to donate money directly, the Humane Society used a favorite backdoor tactic to support Secretary Vilsack’s wife.   The HSUS Legislative Fund attacked her opponent Steve King, a Republican, in an effort to support Christie Vilsack.  Congressman King is no friend of HSUS nor does King share HSUS’ anti-meat, anti-agriculture agenda.  

With over $3M raised by Vilsack directly and donations by Nancy Pelosi’s PAC and the Humane Society Legislative Fund among others, over $7M was spent trying to defeat King, according to King’s staff.  However the money spent by HSUS backfired with all eight televisions stations eventually pulling the HSUS ads attacking Steve King because they were simply not true.  After the defeat in the election, HSUS came back and ran ads trying to undo the damage to their name and reputation, reportedly in excess of $100,000.

Secretary Vilsack also has another connection through APHIS, who enforces the Horse Protection Act, with HSUS.  Vilsack hired former HSUS employee and animal rights activist Sarah Conant to lead APHIS Enforcement.  Since her hiring, animal cruelty charges and fines have skyrocketed.

Also, in Whitfield’s letter to Secretary Vilsack, the Congressman claims, “because of the increasing incidence of pressure shoeing in recent years, we ask that the Department make good on past threats to remove shoes and pad packages as part of its inspection.”  When asked about the basis for this claim of increased pressure shoeing, Whitfield’s Chief of Staff Cory Hicks stated that because of the two ethics complaints against the Congressman and advice of legal counsel he would not comment.  For the record, there have only been two horses that have been found to be pressure shod since the law was passed in the 1970’s and both of those horses were caught by the industry operated inspection program, not the USDA.  This year both the USDA and the Celebration’s Veterinary Advisory Committee utilized digital radiography during their examinations and not a single case of pressure shoeing was detected.

The Celebration contracted with an independent Veterinarian Advisory Committee (VAC) to protect the welfare of the horses showing by administering objective tests, which included digital x-rays and blood tests. As pointed out, the digital x-rays conducted by the VAC confirmed the results of the digital x-rays conducted by the USDA, there was not a single incident of pressure shoeing at the World Championship horse show. The VAC  also removed shoes from  World Grand Champions, including the 2014 World Grand Champion Tennessee Walking Horse I Am Jose’ and found no improper shoeing.  Neither HSUS, Congressman Whitfield nor Secretary Vilsack has commented on those findings.  Blood was drawn on over 400 horses and those results should be available from the laboratory in mid-October and will be made public.

Secretary Vilsack has previously been made aware of the need for objective testing to replace the current subjective inspection protocols.  At the 2012 Celebration Secretary Vilsack was notified that if a particular team of four USDA VMOs conducted the inspections, violations would be drastically higher than if different VMOs inspected.  For the first half of the show, the exact four Secretary Vilsack was warned about showed up. However for the second half of the show they were replaced with four other VMOs.  Violations found by VMOs during the second half of the show were reduced by nearly four times.

Also statistics at this year’s show bear out the highly subjective nature of the exams.  Of the approximate 100 horses that industry inspectors and USDA inspectors disagreed on regarding the scar rule, those 100 horses passed inspections with USDA VMOs present almost 300 times during the 2014 season.  These same horses were turned down by the USDA at the Celebration and passed by the industry inspectors.  As previously stated, the USDA said there was no new technology at this year’s Celebration versus the prior 300 exams during the show season.

It begs the question, what was so different about the same horses at this year’s Celebration versus last year’s Celebration and industry shows throughout the year?  Are horses being abused at a three and a half times rate versus last year’s Celebration and previous shows this 2014 season?  Or has the HSUS and their close relationships at USDA biased the same inspectors that previously did not find violations on the same horses?

HSUS spends millions of dollars to advance their agenda and sway the public through media campaigns as well as behind the scenes with political donations to key government officials overseeing legislation benefitting the HSUS.  The Walking Horse industry is small, financially challenged and extremely weak at the present time and HSUS has made them their first target in their campaign against performance horses of every breed.

The horse industry can only hope that Secretary Vilsack will pay attention to the thousands of lives being unfairly harmed, the highly subjective nature of his inspections and the facts that support a need for an objective, science-based inspection protocol.  That alone would eliminate the uncertainty that is killing an industry with an annual $3.2B economic impact.