Group: USDA agents face 'hostile' crowds at horse shows
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA plans to overhaul its system for regulating certain horse shows after a recent audit found that current rules fail to prevent inhumane practices.
About 40 years ago, Congress charged the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service with regulating horse shows to prevent an abusive practice known as "soring."
Soring involves "cutting, burning or lacerating" a horse's forelimbs, treating the forelimbs with caustic chemicals and applying shoes that exert painful pressure on the hooves, according to an audit from USDA's Office of the Inspector General.
The practice is meant to heighten the sensitivity of the horse's forelimbs, resulting in an exaggerated gait that is prized at certain horse shows, typically those focused on high-stepping animals like the Tennessee walking horse, the audit said.
Over time, horses subject to soring can develop laminitis, an inflammatory hoof condition that makes it difficult for the horse to stand up, said Midge Lietch, a Pennsylvania veterinarian and chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' horse welfare committee.
"They're animals that are meant to be on their feet," she said, noting that excessive lying down causes health problems for which horses are often euthanized.
"We really don't have a good solution for horses that develop multiple limb laminitis," Lietch said.
The Horse Protection Act, passed in 1970, aimed to curb the practice by giving APHIS the authority to inspect horse shows and impose penalties for soring violations.
However, the program only receives about $500,000 in annual funding, which effectively prohibits APHIS inspectors from attending the vast majority of walking horse shows.
Instead, the agency devised a system in which horse show organizers hire "designated qualified persons" -- generally farriers, trainers and others familiar with horses -- to inspect animals for soring.
According to the audit, this program is innately ineffective and should be abolished.
"Because these DQPs are primarily hired from show industry participants, they have an inherent conflict of interest -- they are reluctant to issue violations since excluding horses from the show inconveniences their employers and makes it less likely they will be hired for other shows," the audit said.
Auditors found that some DQPs issued warnings instead of penalties, didn't actually observe horses as they moved and issued tickets to people other than the exhibitors, such as stable employees, to help violators avert suspensions.
In general, the audit found that DQPs were much less likely to issue tickets if they weren't directly observed by APHIS inspectors.
Officials from APHIS have agreed with the audit's conclusion that the current DQP system should be terminated.
The agency said it will seek to enact new regulations under which APHIS, rather than show organizers, would license DQPs. The agency would try to recruit USDA-accredited, independent veterinarians for the role, with show organizers still responsible for the cost.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners agrees with the recommended changes, Lietch said. However, she said the agency must still address the security problems of conducting inspections at walking horse shows, where crowds have been known to have strong anti-USDA sentiments.
"The environment is hostile. That issue needs to be dealt with," she said. "Many in that industry don't regard horse abuse as a serious problem and resent the USDA doing inspections."
Two major walking horse show organizers mentioned in the audit -- Show Inc. and the Kentucky Walking Horse Association -- did not respond to calls for comment.
Audit criticizes horse transportation
The same audit of APHIS found that the agency must strengthen its oversight of horses transported for slaughter to Canada and Mexico.
According to the audit, APHIS doesn't prevent individuals who have violated humane handling rules from continuing to transport horses, even if they've failed to pay fines.
"Regulations simply do not address denying this authority, and so APHIS provides the authorization, regardless of the owner's history," the audit said. "Without regulations or legislation to establish more meaningful penalties, owners have little incentive to comply with regulations, pay their penalties and cease inhumanely handling horses bound for slaughter."
Auditors also said the agency lacks strict enough controls over the inspection tags that permit horses to be shipped for slaughter, effectively allowing animals that are unfit to travel to be transported over long distances.
In response to the audit, APHIS officials said the agency would consult with attorneys to determine how to heighten enforcement of transport. The agency also plans to work with state officials and veterinarians to improve the tagging system.