"Today, Tennessee Walking Horses are known throughout the industry
as the breed that shows abused and tortured horses."

~ Jim Heird, Ph.D., Do Right By The Horse, February 2010

"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,
you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."

~ St. Francis of Assisi

Monday, November 22, 2010

ARTICLES and THOUGHTS - My Thoughts on the 2010 Sound Horse Conference

So let’s talk.

I heard a lot about the SHC and what happened. Click here for the link to the 2010 page on the SHC website. In my opinion, I think there were some serious ground breaking things going on, and I got some great feedback from my friends who went and friends back east who know the sore horse industry side of it and their reactions.

First, I imagine many of you heard about Winky Groover, son of Wink Groover and president of the Walking Horse Trainers Association. (Yes, WHTA has members and officers with violations and has had violations at their affiliated shows.) Winky stood up and gave a speech about how he’s gone sound after years and years of soring horses. He admitted that he has HPA violations and said he’s ready to stop. Click here for the article that has his speech. I was told that he was crying while he made this speech, so I do believe he was serious—I don’t think this guy can act that well.

This is a big deal because the Groover family were well known sore horse supporters and their whole family has sored their horses. For someone like him to go sound is an amazing feat. I think it’s important for us to realize that what he has done has put his job and his livelihood on the line, so we must respect this choice. I believe forgiveness is important--when someone has a change of heart, we should welcome them to the sound horse world with open arms.

I however want to address a few things in his speech that I think he might be a bit off on. Now, I truly believe he believes this information, that he is not spouting crap to get the rest of us to sympathize or anything like that. But I do want to point out that there are still issues here that we need to be aware of. Below is a quote from Mr. Groover’s speech in italics, followed by my assessment.

I thought the AAEP nailed it in their assessment of the industry. Perhaps the most profound statement was, “effective change in the current culture of the industry must come from within, it is incumbent upon industry participants themselves, owners, trainers, and all support personnel to take full responsibility for developing a program which succeeds in eliminating the recognized abuses that are at the core of the problem”. I believe this program is in place and we have already seen sweeping, effective change come about in the industry. We have more to do but we have come a long way in a short amount of time.

Yes, Mr. Groover is correct--the core of this problem is the culture. However, the change is VERY slow. Let’s look at Mr. Groover himself: he and his family have obviously continued to sore horses even when the HPA was in place. His change didn’t come until 40 years AFTER the HPA was in place. We can no longer wait for changes of hearts to come. What we need is a sweeping change that shuts down sore horse HIOs and jail time for the felons who continue to violate the HPA rather than a slap on the wrist...which the USDA is capable of doing. (More on that later.) Changes of heart take years upon years to come about. It won’t happen anytime soon enough for the horse.

An HIO was activated in April of 2009 with the mission and desire to implement inspections employing AAEP recommendations. This HIO called SHOW, is headed by an AAEP vet and they took actions to resolve conflicts with DQP’s, organize clinics both for owners and trainers and also with USDA involvement and direction. SHOW has also implemented an inspection process that is tough and fair whether the USDA attends the shows or not. A fund raising entity, FAST (Foundation for the Advancement and Support of the TWH Show horse) was also developed to fund the education and projects in accordance with the AAEP recommendations that “funding must come within the industry”.

I don't buy this at all. SHOW has hired HPA violators to be on their board, on the BODs, as DQPs and as judges. If they were serious about ending this, they would do so by keeping these people out of the limelight. Also, we are still seeing people leaving in droves when the USDA shows up at a SHOW-affiliated show, which of course is proof of guilt. And of course, we still have the proof that over 200 horses were found sore at the 2010 Celebration, which was sanctioned with SHOW. How is this progress? It isn’t. Having a sound HIO would that allows the BL horses at their shows would be progress.

To wit, I have heard from the BL industry that this was all a hoax to get the USDA off the BL industry’s back. In fact, here’s the exact quote I got from my friend back east who has some connections.

I just got off the phone with my BL friends. They are the same trainers I mentioned before that said the Wink G. stuff was just a gimmick. I asked again to see what they thought was the real deal. What I just heard was that this was a whole big scheme to get NWHA and SHOW to join forces in the face of dwindling show attendance and lower numbers across the boards. We talked at length of how this is NEVER EVER going to happen, but at long last, this is the word from her trainer buddies in TN, and they are some of the bigger kids that are often associated with pressure shoeing, at least around here.

But, from the folks I talked with about the conference itself, they truly believe that Groover was not making this up. I think that most likely, the BL community is acting like this because they know that for someone like him to stand up and quit soring is going to be a big hit on their industry.

Now we’re seeing a different kind of change. Perhaps more people are sound, but now I’ve learned that in this past year, over 450 “outlaw” or “wildcat” shows have popped up. These are shows that aren’t affiliated with any HIO, so they don’t have to have DQPs and do whatever they want. Here’s more information from a source back east.

We show on what is now called an "outlaw" show circuit and very probably almost every walking horse that is not a light shod horse is sored and perhaps 1/3 of the light shod horses are sore in one way or another. Some of the trainers don's give a damn and they wrap in plastic with buckets of greasy stinking stuff right out in the aisles for the whole world to see. It makes everyone with a walking horse look bad. I refuse to stall by the other TWH folks and camp at the very end of the fairgrounds away from everyone! I attend because they are all breed shows and I have trotting horses too. They also cost a lot less then sanctioned shows. I can take 2 horses and show all weekend for about $400. That includes stalls, camping fees and all entry fees. It is a load of fun and it is only the TWH folks that are frowned upon! I have showed this circuit since I started showing and I can take my TWH and my ASB [and my Paint] and show them both all weekend and have a blast. You just have to be prepared to get beat by '"tungsten and blue soap."

I think this is something we’re going to see a lot of now. Most shows are going to just not affiliate with any HIO, period. Now technically, the USDA can show up at these shows and shut them down and fine the show management. Question is...will they do it?

My friend Gary Lane presented at the SHC. Gary and I are friends, I won’t lie. But one reason why we’re friends is we have the exact same views on this industry--that the way it will end is if the USDA steps up and gets serious about enforcing the law. This is a view I had long before I met Gary. Gary and I agree that if they just shut down one HIO for continued violations, then the other HIOs will start to figure things out. Or if they shut down HIOs all together and do inspections themselves, then things will change.

Gary put together a presentation that I will be including in this blog soon. Right now it’s not being posted on the SHC website. I don’t know if they haven’t received it yet or what, but honestly, I do know that several people who run the SHC think that people like myself and Gary need to stop bothering the USDA about this. They think people will have a change of heart like Groover did and the culture will break down. Well, they’ve had 40+ years to have a change of heart...it’s high time that change be enforced.

Gary pointed out some very, very important information. The APHIS HPA inspection process has been reviewed a multitude of times over the past decades. I don’t have the exact dates on me right now (I will get those), but if I remember right, there were two reviews done in the 1980s, one in 1996, the one by the AAEP, and the most recent one by the OIG. Here’s the deal: ALL of these reviews have said that allowing the industry to police itself is a conflict of interest. To put it plainly, it is literally the fox guarding the hen house. Whether or not horses are sored, the fact that the industry hires people within the community who have violations as judges and DQPs is not going to solve the problem. These people will allow sore horses through because it’s in their best interest to do so. The USDA APHIS has been given the suggestion multiple times to shut this down, and they’re not doing it.

Because the USDA enforces the HPA, this does mean that they have jurisdiction to enforce it with any means necessary. But here’s the problem: they have threatened to shut down HIOs in the past (e.g., SHOW) and have not done it. They will not decertify HIOs, judges, or DQPs who have violations. The penalties are way too lax--a slap on the hand and a small fine is not going to get these people to stop what they’re doing.

The bottom line is this: If we make the consequences of soring equal those of other types of felons (because violating the HPA is a felony--ask any lawyer if you don’t believe me), then it WILL begin to end. Or soring will become very rare, which will make it easy to spot, and if judges and DQPs would do their jobs then those horses can be eliminated before they get into the show ring. Gary stated in his presentation that when he was a police officer, he didn’t give people a blue ribbon for speeding when he pulled them over. In that same vein, imagine having the same penalties for violating the HPA if you were dealing with a felon who has committed grand theft auto or homicide. With that perspective, are those penalties acceptable? And here’s the kicker: the tools and capabilities are in place to make these changes. THE USDA JUST NEEDS TO STEP UP AND DO IT! That’s all we need!

Well I kinda got away from the SHC itself with that. Overall I heard it was nice and had tons of great information. But the conference itself is a hard thing for me to understand. Don't get me wrong--it's a great way to gather information and get it out there for the public. The one thing that does not sit well with me is that the SHC preaches to the choir--they are merely presenting in front of people who already want to see soring to end. Rose Miller said in her review of the SHC: “One of the speakers said...that [this information] should have been presented in front of thousands instead of the group present. I totally agree, and with that in mind, please feel free to share these thoughts with your friends.” They are right. This needs to be presented through mandatory meetings by the USDA with HIOs, get this information out at equine affaires and horse expos, things like that. The pressure needs to continue on both the USDA and the HIOs to get them to stop this nonsense. So please, spread the word, tell people about the SHC, and let’s be active in helping to end this horrible practice and stop these felons once and for all.

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