Further USDA crackdown on soring practices expected
March 01, 2012
This article is more than 3 years old
On April 26, 2011, a federal grand jury in Chattanooga, Tenn., returned a 34-count indictment against Paul Blackburn, 36, and Christen Altman, 25, of Shelbyville, Tenn., as well as Barney Davis, 38, and Jeffery Bradford, 33, of Lewisburg, Tenn., charging them with violations of the federal Horse Protection Act and related financial crimes.
According to court documents, the four defendants were involved in a horse training operation from 2002 to October 2010 in which they "sored" Spotted Saddle Horses. This included inserting metal bolts in the horses' hooves and injecting chemicals into and applying irritants to sensitive areas of the horses' feet and pasterns to exaggerate their high-stepping gait during horse shows. They went so far as to falsify entry forms and other related paperwork to avoid detection by Department of Agriculture inspectors and designated qualified persons—inspectors certified by the USDA to check horses competing in shows for evidence of soring. The defendants did this so that additional customers would pay Davis and the others to board and train their horses at his barn.
Blackburn pleaded guilty Oct. 18, 2011, to a federal indictment charging him with conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act and substantive violations of the act. He was sentenced to 12 months' probation and a $1,000 fine Jan. 23 by US District Judge Harry S. Mattice for violating the HPA, among other charges. As part of Blackburn's probation, Judge Mattice ordered him to write an article describing soring methods used in the gaited-horse community, the effects soring has on the horses, and the scope of soring in the industry. Co-defendants Davis, Bradford, and Altman also pleaded guilty but were awaiting sentencing at press time. Davis, who also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit witness tampering, was facing up to a $250,000 fine and a 20-year prison sentence.
It's not the defendants' actions alone that make their cases noteworthy. In 2011, USDA inspectors and designated qualified persons identified 1,111 similar violations of the HPA. They made it to 474 of the 600 to 700 gaited-horse shows held that year. The USDA inspectors attended 62 of the events and found 587 of the violations.
What was uncommon was the fact that the violators were taken to court. The cases marked one of the first criminal indictments brought against individuals for violating the HPA in 20 years. And the USDA, with the help of the Department of Justice, hopes this is just the beginning.
"The crime committed by (Blackburn) is an example of a wide-spread problem in the equine industry that gives unfair and illegal advantage to some competitors over others, in addition to causing cruelty to the animals," said Bill Killian, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, in a Jan. 23 DOJ press release. "This issue has our attention and we will continue to pursue violators of the Horse Protection Act. ..."
Congress enacted the Horse Protection Act in 1970, making it a federal offense to show, sell, auction, exhibit, or transport a sored horse. But for those familiar with the gaited-horse industry, particularly in the Southern states, it often seems as though the law doesn't exist.
Just ask Dr. Neal Valk, an equine surgeon in Greeneville, Tenn., who owns Stonehill Veterinary Center. An expert in natural hoof care, he estimates about a third of his caseload is composed of gaited horses and says that, where he lives, soring is rampant. In fact, he would say it is the rule rather than the exception in his area.
Soring is performed by trainers, owner-trainers, and farriers, according to Dr. Valk. An owner-trained horse competing in a local "fun" show is just as likely to have been sored as a professionally trained horse competing in a large show, Dr. Valk said, although the method of soring might be different.
Methods range from application of irritants such as kerosene, hand cleaners, or oil of mustard to the pastern region of the forelimbs to the use of mechanical devices such as heel springs, bolts, or convex pads, which inflict pain by applying pressure to the soles of the forefeet in a continuous or intermittent fashion.
Techniques vary depending on the experience of the applicator and the likelihood of detection, which hinges on the scrutiny and judgment of the person inspecting the horse at a show or sale. In general, the more simple, less technologically advanced techniques are used with horses competing in small, low-profile shows.
"Unfortunately, the need to avoid detection has fueled the development of newer, more innovative, and more subtle methods of soring," Dr. Valk said. The same goes for hiding evidence of soring.
Some owners or trainers will use numbing agents that mask pain during inspection of the legs, or will, just before an inspection, apply a distraction device such as an alligator clip in the horse's rectum or on its testicles, or plastic ties around the horse's gums.
Dr. Valk said soring is difficult to stop, because it has become a fixture in the gaited-horse culture. Horses that move with the extreme, deep gait that is so desirable within the industry win, and soring is the simplest way to create this artificially. Many trainers and owners believe, therefore, that they must sore their horses to effectively compete in the show ring. Otherwise, they see themselves at a disadvantage.
Interestingly, Dr. Valk said the move away from chemical soring toward mechanical soring—in an attempt to avoid detection—has increased the prevalence and severity of hoof lesions and hind limb issues.
Equine practitioners who work with owners in the gaited-horse industry have three options, as far as Dr. Valk is concerned: refuse to treat sored horses and risk the economic and social implications; accept what's happening, with full disclosure from the trainers, and risk the ethical and legal implications; or compromise by pretending not to acknowledge that horses are being sored.
It has been difficult to eliminate soring, because there has not been one consistent voice for the industry to self-regulate. That's why we're still trying to work with (horse industry organizations) as well as veterinary organizations such as the (American Association of Equine Practitioners and) AVMA.
Dr. Rachel Cezar, coordinator, Horse Protection Program, USDA APHIS Animal Care
"I have always requested full disclosure from the trainer when treating gaited performance horses, and many trainers are cooperative in revealing what has been done to the horse in question. Without this knowledge, it can be very difficult to accurately assess the true condition of a lameness issue, for example. When uninformed, I must work around the issue to the best of my abilities," Dr. Valk said during a presentation at the 2010 Sound Horse Conference in Louisville, Ky.
Most of his clients in the industry don't view soring as abusive, because it usually doesn't result in visible or permanent damage to the horse—that is to say, they believe that even though the process causes pain (the intended purpose), it does not actually "hurt" the horse. Thus, he said, they do not think the horse suffers as a result of the procedure.
"They're my people, and they're not bad people. They love their kids, pay taxes, go to church, and they do love their horses, but they are trapped in a world that doesn't believe a sound horse can be competitive or draw a crowd. We need to help them dispel that belief by changing the system," Dr. Valk said.
What's being done
The Animal Care program, which is part of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, enforces the Horse Protection Act and works to eliminate soring.
Dr. Rachel Cezar, Horse Protection Program coordinator with APHIS Animal Care, believes that soring is still common at sanctioned horse shows. And those are the shows the department knows about.
"Many individuals are just having shows and not telling us," she said.
The appropriation for HPA enforcement was set at $500,000 with the passage of a 1976 amendment to the act, and—until FY 2012—had not been increased again in nearly four decades. Chronic underfunding has hampered efforts to crack down on violators, Dr. Cezar said. The program was going to implement drug testing in 2010, for example, but didn't have the money.
The issue of soring has received more attention in recent years, after the USDA Office of the Inspector General completed an audit in fall 2010 analyzing APHIS' oversight of the Horse Protection Program and the Slaughter Horse Transport Program (see JAVMA, Jan. 15, 2011). According to the audit's executive summary, the OIG found that APHIS' program for inspecting horses for soring is not adequate to ensure that these animals are not being abused.
As a result, Animal Care's appropriation for HPA enforcement in the FY 2012 agricultural appropriations bill was upped to $696,000 at the request of the Obama administration and a bipartisan group of more than 150 members of Congress.
The audit also allows APHIS to change Horse Protection Act regulations—the first time since Dec. 30, 1992.
Some of the first regulatory changes likely to come will be related to the designated qualified persons program, because of concerns that relying on the system as it stands today hampers effective enforcement. Currently, DQPs can be USDA-accredited veterinarians with equine experience or farriers, horse trainers, or other indviduals who have been formally trained and licensed by one of a dozen USDA-certified horse industry organizations or associations.
Dr. Cezar said there's nothing in the HPA addressing the potential conflicts of interest these DQPs might have when performing inspections at shows. The OIG's audit recommended abolishing the DQP system altogether, so that only USDA employees would provide inspections.
"We're not able to attend all these shows with our funding right now, so we negotiated with the OIG auditors to (have the USDA) take over the training and licensing of the inspectors. We would then have full authority over training, licensing, and reprimanding of the DPQs. At this time, they're licensed under the horse industry organizations, and we are only able to recommend that a DQP be reprimanded," she said.
Also, the agency is looking at revamping the rules so the punishment structure is more uniform.
"We are working with the 12 different horse industry organizations to have more consistency with their enforcement of the HPA penalties," Dr. Cezar said. "It has been difficult to eliminate soring, because there has not been one consistent voice for the industry to self-regulate. That's why we're still trying to work with them as well as veterinary organizations such as the (American Association of Equine Practitioners and) AVMA."
Other areas the USDA may look into are all-out prohibitions on certain soring practices.
Going back to 1979, APHIS stated in a final rule published in the Federal Register that if the horse industry made no effort to establish a workable self-regulatory program for the elimination of sored horses, or if such a program were established but did not succeed in eliminating the sored horse problem within a reasonable time, the agency would seriously consider prohibiting all action devices and pads except protective boots.
That was 33 years ago, and, clearly, the state of the industry has not improved much. APHIS' expectation—in proposing new regulations to establish a consistent penalty protocol for the horse industry organizations to enforce, along with other forthcoming proposals—is to enable the Horse Protection Program to eliminate soring. If these regulatory changes and the resulting changes in the program do not eliminate soring, however, the USDA will "seriously consider taking substantially more restrictive action, including, but not limited to, prohibiting the use of all action devices and pads, to accomplish the goal set forth by Congress in the Act," according to comments by the agency in a 2010 proposed rule.
See you in court
As the USDA APHIS moves to improve its enforcement of the HPA, the agency has received help from the USDA Office of the Inspector General and the Department of Justice to stop soring through another tactic—taking HPA offenders to court.
Certified DQPs or USDA inspectors can issue only civil penalties for violations they find. When the DQPs find a violation, for example, they are supposed to write a ticket, serve it to the responsible individual, and impose a fine or suspension. The maximum penalty, according to the HPA, is a one-year disqualification and a $3,000 fine.
USDA inspectors can, instead, fill out a form that requests a federal investigation, which is forwarded to the USDA's investigators. The inspectors can collect affidavits from veterinarians or the alleged violators, and these are forwarded to the USDA attorneys, who can file a complaint if they so choose. The USDA OIG has the authority to pursue criminal violations of the HPA, including allegations related to soring and false entries or statements.
The government scored a legal victory with the guilty pleas and convictions of Blackburn, Davis, Bradford, and Altman on abuses related to soring. They were the result of a seven-month investigation conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee and the USDA Office of the Inspector General, starting in August 2010.
"In the past, we haven't had much support to look at doing these types of penalties, but, fortunately, we have received more support from the OIG wanting to enforce the HPA," Dr. Cezar said. "They're interested in helping us, because they realized how soring is an inhumane and abusive practice that is still occurring and needs to be eliminated."
They're my people and they're not bad people. They love their kids, pay taxes, go to church, and they do love their horses, but they are trapped in a world that doesn't believe a sound horse can be competitive or draw a crowd. We need to help them dispel that belief by changing the system.
Dr. Neal Valk, owner, Stonehill Veterinary Center, Greeneville, Tenn.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Tennessee and the USDA OIG brought another criminal case this past year, which they won as well.
Chris Zahnd, 45, owner and operator of Swingin' Gate Stables in Trinity, Ala., was sentenced Nov. 21, 2011, by U.S. Magistrate Judge E. Clifton Knowles to two years of probation.
Zahnd pleaded guilty to charges that at a July 4, 2009, show in Tennessee, a horse he had trained and stabled was wearing a nerve cord in its mouth and was bilaterally "sore," as determined by an inspector. Nerve cords are plastic zip ties applied around a horse's gums to distract the horse during an inspection for soring. Zahnd was already a five-time HPA violator, according to the HPA database.
The government agencies hope the recent convictions and the threat of future prosecutions against those who sore horses will motivate the industry to make changes.
U.S. Attorney Bill Killian, in a Nov. 8 Department of Justice press release, said, "It is extremely important to maintain the integrity of the (gaited-horse) industry and ensure that those who participate in the industry are following the law. There have been too many people who have acted with impunity in this arena for too long by violating the Horse Protection Act and other federal laws.
"We hope this prosecution and others like it will deter trainers and owners who are thinking about cheating and committing fraud in order to reap monetary profits and achieve notoriety. Hopefully, the possibility of being federally prosecuted, sustaining criminal convictions—felonies and misdemeanors, and the prospect of jail time will serve to make people think twice before violating the law."
FAQs about soring
Q: What are the most commonly sored horses?
A: Tennessee Walking Horses appear to be the most commonly affected; however, other gaited horses such as Racking Horses, Spotted Saddle Horses, Missouri Fox Trotting Horses, and Rocky Mountain Horses are also frequently sored.
Q: Where are most incidents of soring discovered?
A: Most are found at gaited-horse shows, primarily in the Southern states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. Less often, evidence of soring is seen at shows as far away as California, Washington, and Iowa.
Q: When does the gaited-horse show season take place?
A: It runs approximately from February to October. No particular show starts the season, but three of the biggest shows in the Tennessee Walking Horse world are the National Trainers Show, this year from April 12-14, White Pine, Tenn.; Spring Fun Show, May 24-26, Shelbyville Tenn.; and National Celebration, Aug. 22-Sept. 4, Shelbyville, Tenn.
The AVMA Animal Welfare Division has developed a fact sheet and a backgrounder on soring. They are available at www.avma.org/soring.