One Step Closer: Walking Horse Celebration Agrees to Plan

One of the great nail-biter situations–and most under-reported stories–in the horse world moved another notch forward (or backward, depending on your point of view) this morning. I received a short email with this message:

“The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration (TWHNC) agreed this morning to affiliate with the National Horse Show Commission. Representatives of both organizations met this morning at the Celebration offices in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and reached an agreement.”

This means that the 2007 Celebration, billed as the “world’s greatest horse show”, would follow the NHSC guidelines for soring inspections which are, in turn, based on a new operating plan put forward by the US Department of Agriculture to ensure that the Horse Protection Act is not violated.

People think that Lexington, or Ocala, or Saratoga, or Scottsdale is the epicenter of the horse world, but for the past few months, anxious eyes in Washington, DC and across the South have been watching the little town of Shelbyville, Tennessee, headquarters of Tennessee Walking horse associations (there are several for trainers, owners, exhibitors, and shows, based on political affiliations) and the site of the Walking Horse Celebration.

At stake: whether the Walking horse show interests (organizers, owners, trainers et al) would agree to agree to move forward as a single body in the face of the USDA regulatory procedure. This is not a simple situation: each organizaiton trains, licenses and assigns its own Designated Quaified Persons (DQPs) to inspect Walking horses at shows affiliated with the different groups. When the USDA sends in inspectors and veterinarians (VMOs), they are really sort of inspecting the inspectors, and re-inspecting horses–and sometimes disqualifying them–after they have been passed by the local DQPs assigned by the NHSC and other groups.

The Shelbyville Times-Gazette reported, “The NHSC is made up of delegates from the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association (WHTA) and the Walking Horse Owners’ Association (WHOA). Last week, both the membership body of both organizations voted to recommend to the NHSC to sign the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Operating Plan for 2007-2008. “

I believe that the only group left outside the coalition is the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA).

The industry held its breath to see what the Celebration would do. The article in the Times-Gazette does not mention soring, but talks around it. USDA inspectors effectively shut down the Celebration last year by inspecting the horses that had qualified for the final World Championship class. The three horses that did pass the inspection did not show as the championship class was cancelled–without the trainers’ knowledge or agreement, according one leading trainer. Earlier in the week, the show was shut down by unrest between trainers, owners, spectators and the federal inspection team.

The USDA had to compromise on some points to move forward with their plan for how inspections would be conducted this year. At the heart of the problem is the so-called “scar rule” which disqualifies horses with evidence of scar tissue on their pasterns. Trainers argue that many horses have scar tissue on their pasterns because of pasture injuries or fence wounds, and that their scarred horses have not necessarily been subjected to illegal soring methods. They also prefer to call them “calluses”, not “scars”.

This is a complicated story–perhaps the most complex in the entire US horse industry. I do not feel qualified to report in depth on the issue because it is so complicated and I believe that the issue must be reported on objectively. The US horse press seems to have abandoned the Walking horse industry and even condemned these people but these horses are hugely popular and the show attracts nearly a quarter of a million people from 40 states. The arena holds 30,000 people. The horses fill 1,650 stalls in 63 barns on 105 acres.

The Celebration was recently listed in the New York Times book, 1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die. The 2007 Celebration will be held in Shelbyville August 22 – September 1. I guess I would rewrite that book title to read: 1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before They Die.Without the support of the larger horse industry, the Walking horses and their entourage of humans are way out on a limb. I have to admit that I have never been to a Walking horse show and until I get to one, I won’t comment. Interpretation is up to you.




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