“There’s a call for you.”
“Tell them I’m schooling. I’ll have to call them back.”
“Um…It’s the White House.”
When was the last time the President of the United States stopped by your training arena?
That’s exactly what happened on February 7, when a Presidential motorcade pulled up in front of the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. President Obama and a few hundred invited guests were shepherded into the famous white-walled, arched ceilinged Gaide Arena for the signing of the long-awaited 2014 Farm Bill.
You can imagine what that does to your footing.
This was a Big Deal for the President, just as it was for the vet school, which is located in East Lansing, Michigan. It was only the second time in his presidency that President Obama would sign a bill anywhere except the White House.
The choice of a vet school for the event was not random; the choice of a dressage arena seems to have been a matter of the best facility for the job, rather than a tip of the top hat to the sport of dressage. This particular piece of legislation has a far-reaching impact on the work veterinarians do every day to protect the health and welfare of both people and animals, so a vet college was naturally on the list.
What was so special about this legislation, and why were so many people cheering at the end of the day?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Farm Bill contains several crucial veterinary research programs that are vitally important for animal health and welfare, including:
• Authorizing up to $15 million annually for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN).
• Authorizing up to $10 million annually to establish a new competitive Veterinary Services Grant Program, which will complement the existing Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The new grant program is aimed at relieving veterinary shortage situations and supporting private veterinary practices that are engaged in public health activities in rural and underserved areas of the country.
• Expanding the Animal Health and Disease Research/1433 Formula Funds.
• Establishing a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which would provide $200 million in funding for new research projects aimed at addressing key problems of national and international significance, including knowledge gaps in animal and plant health.
• Reauthorizing up to $700 million annually for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which provides grants for research, education and extension work into sustaining all components of U.S. agriculture.
The American Horse Council (AHC) noted that the horse industry is not as dependent on programs authorized by the Farm Bill as other segments of American agriculture. However, AHC added, several programs important to the horse industry are reauthorized by the bill, including livestock disaster programs, the Market Access Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Hilary Clayton, PhD, MRCVS is McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State, and oversees the beautiful McPhail Center, where she and her staff and students perform research in sport horse science. On any given day, you might see them trotting horses over force plates, videotaping horses in mid-piaffe, or testing a new saddle or bit with high-tech imaging technology.
But all of Dr. Clayton’s high-tech imaging equipment paled in comparison to the security technology that surrounded and filled the McPhail Center that day. The building was “sanitized” of horses, and the arena’s precious footing wasn’t even visible under a false tile floor that was built to cover it all.
You can be sure that President Obama did not leave with bits of footing clinging to his polished shoes.
When the cheers erupted in the arena as the president used an array of fountain pens to sign the bill, it wasn’t just veterinarians who were cheering. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) applauded the new bill, which offers some disaster relief to horse farms after destruction by tornado- or flood-type damage.
The Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), the Livestock Forage Program (LFP) and the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP) help livestock producers should natural disaster or disease strike. The bill explicitly names horses in its definition of livestock, the NTRA says.
The horse world benefited from another point of view: the land we need for our horses. The Land Trust Alliance reports, “The 2014 Farm Bill will generate more than one billion dollars for saving working farm and ranch lands. The bill will keep working farms and ranches in family hands and reinvest dollars, keeping local communities vital. It will help ensure that local food will be available in farming communities across the United States. Moreover, this bill will help to create and secure jobs, helping to restore and maintain our ways of life.”
The McPhail Center has hosted a long list of celebrities at events: Walter Zettl, Bettina Drummond, Gerhard Politz, Paul Belasik, and Sylvia Loch are just a few who will now find their names next to President Barack Obama.
The Farm Bill event at Michigan State had everyone cheering; there seemed to be something for everyone in the fine print of the huge bill. Even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) had something to crow about that day: they noted on their blog that the Farm Bill contains a provision to crack down on animal fighting.
And on a more personal level in all our lives, the Farm Bill gives a boost to organic produce and foods. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association smiled as the bill was signed and report on their website: “The bill…reinstates funding for organic certification cost share to all 50 states…The action helps make organic certification more affordable for everyone.”
More than a few dressage jokes and Rafalca reminisces echoed through Twitter on February 7 as the press corps migrated to Michigan with the President. NBC in particular seemed to be in on the joke and tweeted a photo of the treadmill at the McPhail Center while NBC White House news producer Shawna Thomas gave a green light to more dressage jokes.
President Obama may not know a piaffe from a half pass, but all the judges seem to have given his performance a high score that day. It’s a rare test lately when the judges agree and everyone goes home happy.
And at the McPhail Center, they’ll never forget such an upper-level day.