By Jeffrey Howard

Copyright WHR 2011

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The Walking Horse Owners’ Association (WHOA) held its annual general membership meeting and board of directors meeting on Saturday February 12, 2011 at the Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, Tenn.  In an unusual move, the board of directors meeting was held in executive session with all media and non-board members excused from the meeting. 

The Walking Horse Report has confirmed with multiple sources close to WHOA that in the executive session WHOA decided to use its own HIO and will accept the USDA mandatory penalties, a move that surprised many directors.  The move prompted the resignations by board members Kathy Zeis and Bruce Vaughn after the meeting. 

The Walking Horse Report has contacted President Kim Bennett but at this time Bennett did not want to comment on the actions taken in the meeting.  He did inform Walking Horse Report that he would comment at an appropriate time in the future.

The general membership meeting focused on many of the challenges facing WHOA in 2011 and a review of the year 2010.  At the top of the list of problems facing WHOA is its financial stability.  Full-time staff has been reduced and the association faces debt that it can’t currently pay.  Membership revenue has dropped drastically in the last two years.  In 2008 membership revenue was $202,150, in 2009 it was $148,635 and in 2010 it fell to $81,165.  Total income of the association has dropped from $663,813.96 in 2008 to $395,498.90, a 40% decline in 2010.  Expenses in 2008 were $659,920.51 as compared to $391,757.21 in 2010.

Debt is also a problem for WHOA.  The largest debt is owed to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and is currently $26,296.  This debt is for the use of the Miller Coliseum for events.  The WHOA offices are in Miller Coliseum but are given to WHOA from MTSU rent free.  “In my opinion Mr. Miller is turning over in his grave at the thought that WHOA has had to pay one dime to MTSU for the use of this facility,” said Budget Chairman Frank Neal.  He continued, “I urge all of you as directors to write letters to the president of the university and speak to the abuse of WHOA (from MTSU) by charging us to use this facility.  I would like to try and get the $26,000 removed and no future payments to use this facility.”

Tommy Hall pointed out that WHOA has paid $358,000 to MTSU in the eight years that the Miller Coliseum has been built.  Virginia Stewart asked if Mr. Miller left any legal document where he expressed his intentions that WHOA not be charged for the facility.  Bennett answered that he had not yet found any documentation but that a member of a bank board with ties to Miller did tell him that it was Miller’s intent to give the facility’s use to WHOA.

Because the debts are not listed on the balance sheets given to the board of directors, Vaughn asked if the financials of WHOA were audited to which Hall replied they were by Wilson & Dempsey.  Vaughn then asked, “Are we going to budget anything to service this debt?”  Neal replied that they were not going to budget any set amount to service the debt but would find other ways to pay the debt.  “We don’t have the luxury of set monthly income and are currently at a big loss as to what our income will be,” said Neal.

The second largest debt owed by WHOA (outside of the loan from Pinnacle Bank) is to the SHOW HIO in the amount of $10,336.  Stewart commented, “I didn’t even know we owed SHOW until I read their press release stating that WHOA owed them.  It is an embarrassment as board members that we didn’t even know that we owed them this money.” 

Hall replied, “They just sent me the amount that we owed at the end of November, other than the debt associated with the International.  When we left $71,000 from the NHSC in seed money for SHOW to start, I think it is a slap in the face for them to put that in a press release.  And then they took our amateur cards and me personally I just think it is time for WHOA to be looking to go in another direction.”

After Hall was finished with his comments regarding the debt to SHOW, many members in attendance applauded the idea of moving in a different direction.  The total debt owed by WHOA totals $62,740.54 of which currently only the amount due Pinnacle Bank is being serviced on a monthly basis. 

As part of the budget report Neal addressed the overall condition of WHOA as well.  “We have sold out our banquet tonight with 353 tickets sold and this ought to tell everyone something and tell the industry something.  This is our biggest turnout ever.  In garnering that much interest it may be time for the owners’ organization to revert back to what its founders intended and how it became so important in the industry.”

Zeis addressed the need for new horse show development as part of her committee report.  “We have a new program with Southern States as part of FAST where all the monies raised will go to horse show development in those states where the monies come from.  We are trying to go outside our own pockets to raise money for horse show development,” said Zeis.  The Southern States program is a proof of purchase rebate program on horse feed.

Zeis continued, “We need new horse shows to grow our industry but it needs to be fair and equitable.  We all need to get our minds together to have horse show development be a collective effort.  Without it we are hurting our industry.  I just want to see us working together because we have a great horse and we just need to get the people and politics out of it,” concluded Zeis.

In his membership committee report, Herschel Blessing addressed the need for unity and how the division in the industry had cost WHOA its membership.  “Until we get unified in this industry we are all going to continue this decline.  The owners have to know more of what is going on.  The old people in this industry are getting tired and the young ones don’t care,” said Blessing.

Before remarks from the membership in attendance started, Hall spoke to the need for horse shows and that without horse shows there won’t be horses in training.  He also spoke to the rumors of the International moving to Shelbyville.  “Mrs. Miller’s foot is out of the grave at the thought we would ever consider moving the International to Shelbyville,” said Hall.  He continued, “We have been blasted lately but the blast has helped as I have received calls and emails of support for WHOA.”

Hall also presented the 2010 show report from WHOA.  In 2010 WHOA had 60 shows of which 37 were affiliated with SHOW, 9 with International, four with PRIDE, four with NWHA, two with Kentucky, one with Heart of America, one with WHOA and two which were unaffiliated.  In those 60 shows, there were 2,245 horses making up 7,335 entries.  The 37 shows with SHOW produced 4,999 entries and the 9 horse shows with International had 1,022 entries.  These 46 shows produced 82% of the entries.  The 9 shows with International were also part of the Kentucky Breeders’ Incentive Fund.

Serving alongside President Bennett in 2011 will be Vice President Don Hancock, Treasurer Richard Greer and Secretary Deborah Williams.

In looking to 2011, Bennett pointed out the top three items that the survey of the membership told them where WHOA should focus.  First was financial stability, second was to continue to promote and sponsor horse shows and third was to represent the owners.  “On our board we have 719 years of walking horse experience so we know a little about what we’re talking about,” said Bennett.

Stephen Brown may have summed it up best considering what was reported to have happened in the board of directors meeting.  “WHOA needs to look to the future and quit whining about the past.  WHOA took the high road and promoted the pleasure and versatility.  It’s time to activate the HIO and get a small group of judges and do your 60 shows.”