Change hard to come by

USDA looking at new ways to detect soring
Published on January 30, 2013
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Show horse
The Walking Horse industry averages about 600 horse shows per year; Department of Agriculture veterinary medical officers attend approximately 80 of those.

As the AVMA, American Association of Equine Practitioners, federal government, and others put pressure on the Walking Horse industry to eradicate the practice of soring, pushback on reform remains.

On Nov. 20, 2012, the AVMA and AAEP released a statement indicating their support for amendments to the Horse Protection Act. As written, the amendments (H.R. 6388) would have strengthened penalties for violations of the act and improved Department of Agriculture enforcement (see JAVMA, Nov. 1, 2012).

Five months earlier, the associations had jointly called for a ban on the use of action devices and performance packages on Tennessee Walking Horses. These are commonly used to accentuate the breed’s distinctive gait but can also be used to facilitate soring, i.e., deliberately inflicting pain to exaggerate the gait of horses to gain an unfair advantage in the show ring.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association and the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization issued letters Nov. 21 and Nov. 28, respectively, to the AVMA and AAEP. Both indicated opposition to the associations’ efforts and the amendments to the HPA.

The TWHBEA wrote that, while it is committed to ending soring: “The Association is aware of no scientific evidence supporting the idea that pads and action devices, when used properly, harm horses. In reality, it is the actions of unscrupulous individuals that harm horses.”

The TWSHO letter followed in the same vein. The group also took issue with the proposed amendment to the HPA that would eliminate the role of horse industry organizations such as the TWHBEA and TWSHO in horse show inspections.

Currently, horse show managers can voluntarily hire USDA-trained lay inspectors, known as designated qualified persons, chosen by certain horse industry organizations. The USDA also has its own veterinary medical officers who perform inspections at some venues.

Under the new provision, the USDA would be responsible for choosing inspectors for horse shows, auctions, and other Horse Protection Act–regulated venues; however, the decision to hire a designated qualified person would still be up to the horse show, sale, or auction organizers.

“Without HIOs there are no assurances of consistent inspections, tracking of individuals that have been previously ticketed, and thus no effective enforcement of the HPA,” TWSHO’s letter stated.

Currently there are 12 horse industry organizations; only six are active. Three are undergoing decertification. That’s because in 2012, the USDA changed regulations to create a more consistent penalty structure for the industry (see JAVMA, Aug. 1, 2012). It requires designated qualified persons who inspect horses to assess minimum penalties for soring. These three organizations didn’t follow the mandate, claiming the regulations were unconstitutional.

Facts and figures

Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, responded to the two organizations’ letters in a Dec. 3 post on the AVMA@Work blog, explaining the AVMA’s and AAEP’s position as well as the proposed amendments.

The science that is available says that raising the heels (placing a horse on pads and wedges) 8 degrees can cause the horse to stumble and tire easily, Dr. Golab wrote. Additionally, horses placed on pads and wedges had inflammation in the flexor tendon area of the pastern.

“Chains that weigh 6 ounces will start to cause hair loss without the use of chemical irritants. Chains heavier than 6 ounces used on horses that have been previously sored will cause open lesions within two weeks,” Dr. Golab added.

Regardless, she said, the horse industry organizations were missing the point of the AVMA’s and AAEP’s decision.

“The AVMA’s and AAEP’s primary concern is that chains and pads are used to exacerbate and/or hide soring. And they can do so irrespective of their size and/or weight,” Dr. Golab wrote. “To remove opportunity and incentive to sore, and to facilitate the inspection process under the HPA, the AVMA and AAEP agree with the authors of H.R. 6388 that self-policing, and chains and pads, have to go.”

Recent statistics bear out Dr. Golab’s claim on self-policing.

As of Nov. 17, 2012, designated qualified persons had completed 62,835 inspections for the year and found 641 violations (1.02 percent). By comparison, 9,685 inspections were completed when USDA veterinary medical officers were present. During those inspections, 572 violations were found (5.91 percent).

During the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the biggest show for this community, 1,849 entries were inspected with USDA veterinary medical officers present, and 166 violations were found (8.98 percent). The preceding year, there was a 9.5 percent violation rate, with 2,143 horses inspected and 203 violations found.

Plus, from 2005-2008, the USDA was present at only 6 percent of all Walking Horse shows, yet designated qualified persons found 39 percent of all their violations at these horse shows.

Divisions remain

Further discord in the Walking Horse industry was made evident when the TWHBEA voted in late 2012 to reject a proposal submitted by the TWSHO to unify the industry under one voice.

The proposal was a draft plan developed from meetings with various independent equine experts, including multiple nationally renowned veterinarians. The mission of the organization was to have a “one-voice” horse industry organization for performance horses.

“Goals include the implementation of one set of HIO protocols, procedures and penalties to ensure consistent, fair and complete inspections throughout the industry. The group’s primary goal would be to eliminate soring through an aggressive reform agenda. Additionally, the group intends to coordinate all industry communications regarding the show horse in matters relating to the HPA, regulatory, and political issues. The proposal intends to create one rulebook, penalty structure, and judging program,” according to an email sent by the TWHBEA.

The proposed 12-member board of directors would have consisted of two members from five current organizations—the TWSHO, TWHBEA, Walking Horse Owners Association, Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, and Walking Horse Trainers’ Asso­ciation—along with two “independent, non-industry” veterinarians.

The TWHBEA cited concerns over the lack of financial details and the representational structure of the board for not joining. The WHOA held a similar vote and rejected the plan but voted to keep lines of communication open with the TWSHO.

Keeping an eye on things

Going forward, while H.R. 6388 is expected to be reintroduced in the 113th Congress, the USDA continues to test new methods to detect soring and keep horses that have been sored from being entered in horse shows.

The USDA Horse Protection Program has begun a pilot project on drug testing. Veterinary medical officers obtain blood to look for agents that could be linked to soring.

“Just as numbing and masking agents are found from the foreign substance testing, we are concerned that these types of agents may be injected in the horses as well to cause soring or mask soring during inspections,” said Dr. Rachel Cezar, Horse Protection Program coordinator with the Animal Care program of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

So far, 50 samples have been collected at three horse shows, and more sampling is planned in 2013.

In addition, the USDA Horse Protection Program will be working with the equine identification system EyeD to establish a program for identifying horses in violation of the Horse Protection Act via a scan of their irises. The USDA will begin using it this year.

“We hope that introducing this technology to the industry will influence (horse owners) to start utilizing it as well for equine identification,” Dr. Cezar said.