Soring: USDA Tightening Up on Inspections and Citations

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors went to the Shelbyville Walking Horse Celebration this year to examine horses for soring damage. They checked for signs of chemical burning of the legs and scars from previous soring;  x-rayed hooves to make sure trainers hadn’t put nails inside to cause additional pain; swabbbed legs to find chemicals they couldn’t see; activated a thermogram, a heat-detecting device, to find anything burning the horse. Good, you say. But this year there was a significant difference in what the inspectors did when they found a sored horse. This year they gave out five times as many citations in the first six days as in eleven days last year. Predictably, some of the Celebration folks were angry. For years, trainers and owners had been able to get away with showing horses that had been sored, with people in the know looking the other way.

In a first reading, USDA’s procedure this year looks like an excellent way for finding and eliminating sored horses from the Celebration. Why isn’t it followed at all Walking Horse events? Answer: USDA can’t afford to pay the necessary number of inspectors to go to all the shows where sored horses would plausibly be found. So it does the next best thing, which is a necessary compromise: certifies TWSHO (Tennessee Walking Horse Organization) and eleven other groups to perform inspections. Trouble is, will these Walking Horse inspectors be thoroughly objective? Recently USDA tightened up these inspections by standardizing soring penalties in the twelve groups. TWSHO responded  by asking a federal judge to declare these new rules null and void because they don’t allow trainers to appeal citations. Disgusted, USDA threatened to remove TWSHO’s certification to inspect horses.

It would be best to take the responsibility for horse examinations completely out of the hands of those who stand to profit by looking the other way. A good alternative, although slow, would be to work on improvements to the Horse Protection Act so that for one thing, plenty of unbiased, objective examiners could be hired to cover Walking Horse shows adequately. Meanwhile, we should applaud this year’s USDA inspectors for going all out to protect the horses.

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