by  Christy Howard Parsons
         At a meeting held Tuesday, March 20, the general membership of the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association voted unanimously not to sign the currently proposed USDA Operating Plan as it is. The WHTA Advisory Committee presented their recommendations regarding the reasons not to sign the Operating Plan, which are included in a separate story in this issue. Most of the two and a half hour discussion was on this issue.
         David Finger, new Acting DQP Director for the National Horse Show Commission, also addressed the group to define how the NHSC DQPs would inspect horses in the absence of a USDA Operating Plan. The penalty schedule was passed out and is also included in a separate story in this issue.
         The National Horse Show Commission will inspect horses at the National Trainers’ Show, which began Wednesday, March 21, in accordance with the Horse Protection Act.
A large crowd of 200-plus trainers were present at the meeting.
WHTA President Wink Groover began by informing the members of the meeting with the American Association of Equine Practitioners which was held Monday, March 19. Groover said he was very disappointed in the AAEP’s president, Dr. Doug Corey, opening comments.
According to Groover, Dr. Corey said, “All I see about the walking horse and your problems are the scarred up horse and the sore horse. I can eliminate both of those. If anyone showed either of them, they should be barred for life.” Groover said Corey made it sound very simple, but “we all know it’s not that simple.”
Groover said he talked to Corey on the break and explained to him, “It’s not as simple as you say it is. A USDA VMO squeezes a pastern area and makes a horse move and all that proves to me is the horse is still alive, but it proves to that VMO that he’s sore. Would you bar someone for life because the VMO found out the horse is still alive? Palpation can be a tool, but it’s very subjective.”
            Groover also said he told Corey that VMOs rub around under the hair to find a bump and call it a scar when it’s nothing but a bump.
Corey responded, “Maybe you’re right and maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”
Groover felt that the AAEP vets think walking horse trainers are cruel because that’s all they’ve ever heard. “They’ve only heard that we show sore and scarred up horses,” said Groover.
Groover then explained that he had hired lobbyists AgWorks Solutions, Bill Hawks and Valerie Ragan.
“Hawks is a farmer, not a horseman, but he does know animals. Ragan is a past VMO but hasn’t seen a Tennessee Walking Horse since the 1980s. She was convinced we were hiring them to defend inhumane treatment. She now kind of believes we’re not that bad,” said Groover.
On Saturday, March 3, Hawks came to the Monroe, La., horse show to see Tennessee Walking Horses being shown first hand. He and Groover walked around. They went to stall after stall to all the walking horse exhibitors and each time Hawks watched as they took the leg wraps off, walked them out of the stall and had Hawks examine their pasterns.
“He didn’t see what the big deal was. He went to inspection and he was totally amazed. He is coming to the Trainers’ Show too,” said Groover.
Groover has caught some flak for comments he has made saying that the government is not our enemy. However he stood by his statement.
“The government is not our enemy. They don’t know any better. They really think we are wrong,” said Groover.
Groover continued his comments, “Everyone needs to keep in mind where you are and what you’re doing at all times from the moment you step on the show grounds.
“The show horse industry is unified. The Commission, Kentucky and Heart of America affiliate 98 percent of the horse shows. The show horse industry is unified. It’s the walking horse people that are not unified,” said Groover.
“It’s time we battle for ourselves. This group is unified,” proclaimed Groover.
He then began specific discussions about what is in the Operating Plan.
He said there had been no changes to the plan the USDA presented.
“Probation is not in. Their inspections for the scar rule are unacceptable. We will be inspecting according to the law, not according to the plan,” Groover explained.
“Some day we hope to have perfect pasterns, but we’re not there yet. We’ve got to find out what’s causing these problems. We spend more time and money on fixing these problems on a horse than on feeding him. We work at fixing the problem every day. We can ride two horses the same amount of time and his pasterns look different. We need vets to study why this is. We need answers. We have some answers. Auburn University told us the pads and chains don’t hurt. But we need to know then why are the blemishes still there. We have to find out how to stop it if it can be stopped. It may not be able to be stopped. It may be due to the anatomy of the horse,” said Groover.
“While they’re doing that, we need to beg for relief from the USDA,” furthered Groover.
Groover told the membership he wanted them to decide whether to sign the Operating Plan. He asked Leigh Bennett to present the findings of the Advisory Group. She deferred to Hal Newman who presented the 12 problems they found with the current Operating Plan. He concluded that we could not sign the plan. See these 12 points in a separate story in this issue.
Someone in the crowd asked what the consequences of not signing the plan were. Groover responded, “We will show like we did for 20 years before the Operating Plan came about. If we don’t know how to show horses under the Horse Protection Act after 35 years, we can’t be helped.
“The USDA is here to stay. In my honest opinion, we have hired outstanding lobbyists to keep pressure on the department. I talk to Agworks four times a day every day. They are in constant contact with the USDA. We can show horses in compliance with the law. We can show horses under the way the Scar Rule is written,” said Groover.
“If the VMOs come this weekend and cause a major problem, then there will be a major problem in Washington. Last year they could cause a problem and know there would be no effect in Washington. Now Bill Hawks has a handle on it,” reassured Groover.
“Now don’t take a scarred up horse and drag him up there. Those days are gone. But with no plan, if you get a case, then you’ll pay your fine and fight your case. Hopefully we can still get benefits back in this plan,” said Groover.
A question arose from the crowd. “What about the clinic? Is the government coming with their stinger out?”
Groover responded bluntly. “They’ve been to three shows so far and haven’t bothered anyone. They will be here at least Friday and Saturday night, maybe more. I’m fairly convinced we can get clean horses in and out. If you have a doubt about your horse, our DQPs will get you.”
“Our DQPs are going to make the call whether the USDA is here or not,” said Groover.
            Mack Motes asked to address the crowd to present an opposing view to the one presented by Hal Newman on the Operating Plan.
“You heard Hal but you heard just one side of this thing. There are consequences to not signing the plan. He said horses were suspended. That’s only if an owner allows the trainer to sore the horse,” said Motes.
Leigh Bennett, as a member of the WHTA Advisory Committee, clarified that Hal had summarized what was on their sheet and that it specified that if an owner was found guilty, he would have “allowed” the trainer to sore the horse and the horse would be suspended.
Motes continued, “It is to your detriment not to sign a plan. Those of you who have had a federal case, if you get a scar rule federal ticket now, it’s going to be your second offense and you’ll get five years.”
To which someone in the crowd remarked, “Unless you’re found not guilty.”
“Then you’ll pay $40,000 to $50,000 to fight it. Just get a first offense and they’ll start at a year and $2,000. If you remember back, we were getting killed with federal cases. That’s when we negotiated to have our own penalty structure to escape these federal cases.
“I agree we can’t live without probation. If you sign now, you might hurt your chances of getting probation put back in,” continued Motes.
“As one of you, I don’t believe we can exist without signing an Operating Plan,” Motes pleaded.
“I do believe that Bill Hawks can help us if anyone can help us. We were hoping to get some information from Dr. DeHaven to possibly get probation back.” Motes looked at Groover.
Groover said, “We didn’t get it.”
“We didn’t hear back from DeHaven?” asked Motes.
“We heard. We didn’t get it,” Groover answered.
Winky Groover, son of President Wink Groover, asked Motes to give his recommendation.
“If it was my choice, I’d sign the plan before the show and opt out after the show,” concluded Motes.
“My owners don’t want a federal case. To have their names splashed all across their local newspapers. We tried to change the law. We spent about $1 million to change the law. That didn’t work.”
Groover clarified. “Let me tell you what Bill Hawks says. He felt like the Commission, Kentucky and Heart of America were a unified group. We are unified and so he has something to sell.”
            Groover was asked to give the Board’s opinion on signing the plan or not.
“The Board voted not to sign the operating plan today, as it exists,” said Groover.
Dale Watts agreed. “Don’t sign the plan. After the last Celebration, we are in a different ballgame. You all aren’t going to like what I’m about to say. Let me say this right. I want to show horses, learn to be in compliance and not be put out of business. I want to take 10 horses to the show and show them. Without a plan, I can lead the first horse up and if he’s out on scar rule, I’ll lead the second, and the third and I can take all 10 up there and find out if each one is in or out because I just have to take them back to the truck. Under the plan, I could have gotten 20 weeks. Under no plan, I can afford to lead them up and find out. You aren’t going to like this. Wink and I have talked and we disagree but the DQPs need to interpret the scar rules the way the VMOS are instructed.
“Under no plan, the DQPs can send me back to the truck and I can learn to be in compliance. Right now, I won’t lead a horse that I would have at last Celebration,” said Watts.
Acting DQP Director David Finger agreed. “We cannot live with an operating plan with the scar rule terminology that’s in there or 50 percent of our horses will be out. We need a plan, but it has to have different terminology. We need a livable, workable plan.”
Sammy Day commented, “What are the advantages of signing and opting out of the plan. They took our only benefit away – probation.”
Groover suggested. “We need to find a way to insure we can show our horses. The way a baseball player insures his arm. I’m not smart enough to know how to do that but there is a way to do it. I’m going to find it.”
Motes answered Day’s comment with his own. “There are advantages of signing a plan – you won’t get a federal case.”
Leigh Bennett and others cried out in response. “No, No, No.” and “They can write a federal case any time they want to.”
Bill Young made a motion to not sign the plan as it currently is written and the motion passed unanimously by a show of hands.
Whitey Whitehead asked, “Why has the scar rule not been challenged?”
“It is being challenged by Bill Hawks,” responded Groover.
            David Finger then stepped up to give his report to the trainers.
            “As acting DQP director, I think we need to restore a little bit of confidence in our program. We need our credibility restored. You all need to represent our industry above reproach from the moment you come on the grounds. Our horse is in great shape. We are arguing over a two square inch area. We are arguing about our industry not about our horse. We do need to do a better job presenting our horses and ourselves. I want to thank Wink Groover for working hard on your behalf. He has given lots and lots of effort. He is for you in every way,” said Finger.
            This comment was met with a strong applause from the members.
Finger continued, “We are going to try new things. We are using different DQPs. I hear ‘that crooked commission bunch.’ If it’s in my power, that day is over, if it ever has been true. You don’t want to hear this, but you can’t have a crooked DQP without a crooked trainer paying him. You have the power to stop it. If I’m permanent in this position, I will be at the shows and I don’t mean just those at the Ag Center. I love horse shows. I’ll be at horse shows.
“We will call it the way it is, no matter who it is,” continued Finger, which was also met with strong applause.
“We are doing a DQP evaluation sheet. Tell us what you want to put on this sheet. We will try to have them at this show. You have to sign it for us to read it. You have to be specific, don’t just say he’s a bad guy because he turned my horse down. We’re going to ask questions. We’re going to ask if you’ve ever had a ticket. If you’ve ever had a ticket from this DQP,” explained Finger.
“We want to look at any DQP that is incapable of performing his duties. He has got to be eliminated. It was never intended to be this way, but the DQP, good or bad, is the most powerful person in the industry. He can impact you greater in a shorter period of time than anyone. We’ve got to have quality people to do a fair job for everybody. DQPs are underpaid and underappreciated. Do you think any of them were paid enough for what they went through at the Celebration?” asked Finger.
Finger explained why he didn’t think they should sign the Operating Plan. “When we sign the Operating Plan, we agree to their terms. The DQPs would have to follow their standards and 50 percent of our horses are out. No way we can live with this operating plan.”
He also pledged to stand behind the trainers. “We’ll back you 100 percent of what we think. If we disagree with the VMO on the scar rule, I will negotiate with the VMO rep. It hurts our credibility when we have to sign a ticket after we pass a horse and the VMO insist that we write it. Some of you say Lonnie didn’t stand up for you. The drawback of the plan is we have to use their plan, not the law. He couldn’t stand up because we had signed the plan.”
Finger concluded, “Sometimes change is really hard. With what we’re facing, we have to change. The USDA is here and is not going away. If you’re bad image, we’re going to ask you to leave. If it takes two – one heading and one heeling- we’re going to ask you to leave. If it takes two and you can’t both stand at his head, don’t come up there. Make sure if a groom is coming later, that he’s not right behind the horse dragging the tack box. We promise you a fair shot. I’ll tell you the DQPs, but if you call them, I hope they’ll tell me. Ricky Statham (from Alabama), John Cordell, Greg Williams (a young guy from Kentucky), Andy Messick a little, Charles Thomas one night. We’ll rotate them around and I encourage everybody to show.”
Knox Blackburn asked Finger to explain his interpretation of the scar rule.
“It’s different than the VMOs. The scar rule says you can have areas, more than one, of uniformly thickened tissue as long as it’s free of redness, lesions and the other language that’s in the Act. The Act says it is permissible to have a smooth line. If you have a line, as long as it’s smooth, you’ll be in the ring. Now don’t bring one up that looks like a road map. We called some out in Louisiana and they should have been out. They were some of the worst I’ve seen,” explained Finger.
Dr. Jim Baum asked, “How do we get the VMOs to get a more realistic interpretation of the scar rule?”
Finger replied, “Bill Hawks is doing this.”