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USDA To Industry: Step Up Or We Will

By Sarah Gee
© Voice, March 2006

On Wednesday February 8, 2006 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted a listening session at the Blue Ribbon Circle Club on the historic Celebration grounds in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Approximately 250 Tennessee Walking Horse enthusiasts – trainers, owners, and breeders – gathered to engage in a discourse with USDA officials about the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and its enforcement. It was a learning experience for all.

Following a welcome and an overview of the session’s ground rules by the USDA’s Mike Tuck, Dr. Chester Gipson, Deputy Administrator for Animal Care at the USDA, took the mike to assure those assembled that the USDA was there to hear what those in the walking horse industry had to say regarding the HPA and the next operating plan which will take affect at the beginning of 2007. Regarding negotiation of the next operating plan, he stated, “We have made a commitment to have an open forum as we begin to develop the next operating plan,” and “As I stand here before you today we have made no decisions as to what’s going into the next plan.” As to the content of the plan, he declared, “One thing I do want to be clear about – the plan will exist to protect this horse.” Closing out his opening remarks, Dr. Gipson encouraged everyone to express their ideas, opinions, and concerns.

Following Dr. Gipson, Dr. Todd Behre, Horse Protection Coordinator for Animal Care at the USDA, stepped forward to present his personal perspective on the HPA and what he’s learned about the walking horse industry in his three and a half years of involvement in HPA enforcement.

Dr. Behre began by reading the Horse Protection Act and defining the term ‘soring.’ He explained that ‘soring’ is a legal term and that one or more of the following conditions must be met for a horse to be considered ‘sore:’ An irritating or blistering agent is applied internally or externally by a person to the limb of a horse; A burn, cut, or laceration is inflicted by a person to the limb of a horse; Any tack, nail, screw, or chemical agent is injected by a person into or used by a person on any limb of a horse; or Any other substance or device is used by a person on any limb of a horse or a person has engaged in a practice that caused pain in the forelimbs of the horse. ‘Soring’ does not include any treatment prescribed by a veterinarian.

He then discussed incidences of soring that he’s seen or heard about at shows over the past few years. Remarking on where he’s gotten some of his information, he stated, “I was the guy in the tank top, shorts, and sneakers wandering around the back side of the show grounds.” On the same subject later in his remarks, he related, “People talk. When I stand out in the middle of the warm up ring at the Celebration people come up and tell me things as if I already knew them. When someone tells me that when you have one that’s a little unlevel you just crank him up on the other side until he’s level, it bothers me.” In the same vein, he also indicated that he had been made aware of the practice of substituting horses in inspection, of having designated inspection horses.

Accompanying his remarks, Dr. Behre showed a series of slides of irregularly linked chains, shoes with borium knobs on their sole side, horses standing on door stops that had been taped to bottoms of their hooves, and bolt apparatus’ attached to the bottom of horse’s shoes. He also identified a list of foreign substances identified by the sniffer over the last two years, substances such as diesel fuel, kerosene, and lighter fluid.

Dr. Behre then turned to shoe weight. Acknowledging that the HPA regulations only stipulate a weight limit of 16 ounces for yearlings, he questioned the affects of heavy shoes or packages on a horse’s hoof and/or leg and on their metabolic requirements and suggested that it may be time to introduce an HPA regulation controlling shoe/package weight.

“So what can you put on a horse’s leg?” That was the next question addressed by Dr. Behre. His answer was that the only substances allowed in the HPA regulations are glycerin, petrolatum (Vaseline), mineral oil, or combinations thereof. Basically anything found on a horse’s leg in addition to those substances is not allowed for in the regulations. Addressing concerns about environmental contaminants being detected on a horse’s leg by the sniffer machine, he explained that in 2004/2005 sniffer samples were collected at a Friends of the Sound Horse Show and a National Walking Horse Association show and that none of the samples tested positive for banned substances. The horses tested had been bathed, groomed, and exposed to diesel trucks and tractors.

Contrasting those tests, he later reported on samples taken at the 2005 Celebration and at the 2005 Kentucky Celebration. 92 samples were pulled at the Celebration and of those 54% indicated something that shouldn’t have been there, primarily numbing substances, UV radiation blockers, DMSO, and diesel fuels or other fuels. At the Kentucky Celebration, 25 horses were checked and 100% tested positive for diesel fuel and almost half had numbing agents. Camphor and sulfur also showed up in the Kentucky samples.

Discussing sniffer technology, Dr. Behre explained that the portable sniffer had been abandoned because it didn’t work well in the field. Instead of being analyzed by the portable machine, samples collected were sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa were they were analyzed by a mass spectrometer that identified the exact substances in the samples.

Concerning the USDA’s policy regarding the sniffer samples, Dr. Behre stated, “We had an agreement in 2004 and 2005 that the sniffer would not be used for prosecution. We are now into 2006. In 2006 we will continue to take samples. We will do it everywhere we show up. We’re simply going to list what we find on the program’s web page to begin with. Other prosecution plans are not etched in stone. The promise of 2004 and 2005 has expired.”

Addressing concerns about sample contamination, he explained that this year they would be using individual bottles for each sample and that those bottles would include the sample collection swab, which will be connected to the cap of the bottle. No human hands will touch the swab. Also, the samples will be taken as soon as a horse walks into inspection, before anyone lays hands on him.

Dr. Behre also addressed the scar rule. He began by questioning why the pasterns of Tennessee Walking Horses show tissue changes that do not occur in other breeds and disciplines of horses. He showed slides of eventing horses, reining horses, cutting horses, dressage horses, and combined driving horses and explained that, in each of these disciplines, the horses are exposed to mud, dirt, sweat, and friction yet their pasterns show no tissue changes. He showed slides of American Saddlebreds and Hackney Ponies. He pointed out that both of these breeds use action devices, commonly on all four limbs, yet their pasterns also show no tissue changes. He related that he had gone to the American Saddlebred World Championship show and had walked the show grounds looking at horses in the stalls and being worked and saw only virgin pasterns He also discussed Tennessee Walking Horses not trained for the show ring - field trial walking horses, pack line walking horses, backyard walking horses. He explained that these horses also show no tissue changes on their pasterns so it’s obviously not a breed characteristic. Likewise, he discussed the back pasterns of show walking horses, which are free of tissue changes, stating that they were exposed to the same bedding, the same amount of feces and urine, the same amount of bathing, etc. He then stated that if the mud, dirt, sweat, and friction, the action devices, and breed characteristics were not the cause of the tissue changes seen on the pasterns of show Tennessee Walking Horses, in his opinion, the primary cause must be the application of chemicals.

He also credited the tissue changes, in some cases, to unbalanced shoeing. He explained that shoeing a horse in an unbalanced manner not only compromises the structural support of the pastern, it pushes the heel up on one side and causes the skin on that side of the pastern to bunch or wrinkle while the other side is made to stretch. In addition, on the side where the heel has been pushed up there is less space from the top of the hoof to the pastern. These two factors, bunched or wrinkled skin and less space from the top of the hoof to the pastern, make that area of the pastern more susceptible to irritation and tissue changes according to Dr. Behre.

Commenting on the enforcement of the scar rule, Dr. Behre stated, “We have lots of discussions about the borderline horse. When that’s all we have left to discuss I’ll be a happy person.” He then urged everyone to read the scar rule. Explaining the rule he remarked that it allows for a lot more tissue changes on the posterior surface of the pastern than on the other three surfaces. He then remarked, “The horses that I’ve seen, as long as I’ve been around this program, everything but the posterior surface of the pastern really looks super. I understand, and I pay due respect to the fact that they used to look horrible. I understand all that, but we’re trying to clean up the whole horse’s leg now.”

He then explained that the rule allows for uniformly thickened skin on the posterior of the pastern. This means that all the skin must be the same thickness and it must be able to be smoothed or flattened out. Skin with a lump under it or normal skin folded into a lump is unacceptable under the rule because those two conditions are indicative of skin responding with an inflammatory response to trauma. Dr. Behre accompanied these remarks with a series of slides taken during the 2004 and 2005 show seasons. These slides showed the posterior surface of several horses’ pasterns. He also explained that DQPs and VMOs could identify diseases of the pastern such as scratches and fungus, and they were fully capable of telling the difference between an injury scar and tissue changes due to soring.

Dr. Behre urged everyone to consider hosting a scar rule clinic. Scar rule clinics involve inviting the USDA to a barn and bringing horses for them to inspect. They will then tell the owners/trainers present whether the horses are in scar rule compliance on that day. They will also digitally photograph the horses’ pasterns and hold a discussion session with all participants.

Further elaborating on shoeing, Dr. Behre detailed the shoeing regulations of the HPA. He explained that the natural toe length has to be twice the length of the artificial toe not counting the shoe. Putting it another way, he stated that the height of the package without the shoe can only be 50% of the length of the natural toe. He then admitted that, while it applies to all Tennessee Walking Horses, it was very difficult to enforce this rule on flat shod horses with acrylic build up on their hooves. Covering the heel/toe ratio requirements, he explained that the toe must be 1 inch or more longer than the heel. He then stated that the USDA had issued 38 shoeing violations in 2005 and urged everyone to buy a ruler.

Dr. Behre also discussed the use of thermography in the inspection process. He stated that it had been determined that there is a significant relationship between the temperature of a horse’s upper leg and the temperature of the hoof. As leg temperature goes up, so does hoof temperature. He related, “If we get a complete thermographic image of a horse in the inspection area prior to someone laying a hand on it, if the horse doesn’t fit the pattern, if the leg is too hot for the hoof or the hoof is too hot for the leg, that’s a good indication that there’s something amiss. That will tell the DQP or VMO that they need to really look at that horse, no matter how well he walks.” He also explained that a DQP or VMO would not be able to call a horse sore based solely on a thermographic image. It would only be used as a tool to determine whether a horse warranted a closer look.

Addressing concerns about the palpation portion of the inspection process, Dr. Behre discussed the use of algometry in determining what level of pressure a horse considers pain. He explained that the HPA regulations call for DQPs and VMOs to use only the balls of their thumbs for palpation and to only apply enough pressure to blanch the thumbnail. Studies have shown that it takes about four kilograms of pressure per square centimeter to blanch the thumbnail. DQPs and VMOs have used the USDA’s algometer to determine how much pressure they regularly use in an inspection and the results have varied between three kilograms per square centimeter and five kilograms per square centimeter. Dr. Behre then stated that he had tested 10 kilograms of pressure per square centimeter on 30 random horses (not Tennessee Walking Horses) and none flinched. He said that this year he will be conducting a study on 25 Tennessee Walking Horses between the ages of four and 10 that are actively showing. They are going to be checked four times each by six different people applying a pressure of 10 kilograms per square centimeter. He stated that the HIOs would be finding the horses for the study.

Dr. Behre urged continuing cooperation between the HIOs and the USDA. He praised the joint training of DQPs and VMOS and called it a rewarding experience for everyone. He then admonished the DQPs to do their jobs when the VMOs were not present. He specifically cited the 2005 Kentucky Celebration, stating that the USDA inspected at the show on the first day. They were not there for the second day and returned on the third day to find a bucket of green grease in the inspection area. Green grease is not an allowed substance according to the regulations of the HPA.

Remarking on cooperation in the industry, he discussed the monthly teleconferences held by the USDA and the nine certified HIOs. He expressed concern that not all of the HIOs participate in the conferences and encouraged them to do so stating, “The USDA relies on the HIOs to share information with the industry.” He also reported that Friends Of The Sound Horse does post summaries of the teleconferences on their website.

He stated that the Horse Protection Program’s budget has not increased since 1976 and stands at $500,000. He explained that this is a relatively small budget for a federal program and that in order to compensate, they would be as creative as possible to catch violators. He then reiterated that DQPs need to do their jobs because the USDA didn’t have the budget to attend every event. He urged show management, industry leaders, and HIO management to support the DQPs and do the right thing.

Closing out his remarks, Dr. Behre gave a run-down of violation statistics over the past three years. He related that at the 2003 Celebration, the USDA was there for 10 days and there were 118 violations. In 2004 they were at the show for seven days and there were 170 violations. In 2005 they came to the Celebration for eight days and there were 191 violations. He also stated that scar rule violation numbers are up as well along with shoeing violations. He encouraged everyone to follow the regulations and show their horses.

A listening session in which attendees could voice their thoughts on the HPA and the next operating plan followed Dr. Behre’s presentation. Questions were raised about the possibility of de-certifying HIOs that do not uphold the description of the operating plan.

The comment was also made that the Tennessee Walking Horse breed has a relatively low incidence of lameness. Navicular is not a problem in the breed and incidences of bowed tendons and pulled suspensory ligaments have decreased significantly over the past several years, more than likely due to better shoeing practices.

The point was also made that horses go through hair coat changes throughout the year. Horses being shown will loose hair, especially in late summer when the summer coat stops growing and winter coat has yet to start growing.

Concern was expressed regarding the severity of penalties. The comment was made that the severity of the penalties inhibits people from taking their horses through inspection and it inhibits DQPs from enforcing the HPA more vigorously.

Following the listening session, the floor was opened for questions or comments regarding Dr. Behre’s presentation. Dr. Behre was asked to clarify where the heel measurement should be taken for the heel to toe ratio. He stated that the regulations state that the measurement is to be taken at the lateral most portion of the coronary band, not the back of the heel.

He was also asked if, in his opinion, a callous was the same thing as a scar. He responded that he thought the scar rule needed to be renamed the ‘Tissue Indicative of Previous Abuse Rule.’ He stated that the industry shouldn’t be concerned with words like scar and callous; the industry should be concerned with whether the tissue on the pastern is described by the regulation. If it is, it is in violation.

One audience member asked Dr. Behre if he was aware of a study conducted in California regarding the use of weight on the limbs of a horse. He related that the study, conducted by the University of California in Pomona, was conducted to determine the effect of weight on a horse’s limbs – what does weight on the limbs do to the energy consumption of a horse. The study found that the metabolic demand increased significantly when weight was placed on the limbs.

A suggestion was made that a time limit should be instituted for inspections. Concerns were also raised about the number of people checking horses in the inspection area. Dr. Behre stated that he had received calls regarding these issues and invited everyone to videotape inspections and send him the tapes to review. He stated that the USDA stresses speed and consistency for DQPs and VMOs. Most inspections take one to two minutes and VMOs are instructed not to recheck a horse. If a violation is found, more time may be taken to explain it to the horse’s custodian. He also explained that if there was a question of a bilateral sore violation, two DQPs and two VMOs were required to check the horse.

Dr. Behre was then asked to explain how a horse could pass pre show inspection and get a scar rule violation on post show inspection. He replied that the condition of the horse can change during the course of a class. Sweat or rain can wash off cosmetic products used to conceal altered tissue. Also, tissue can become inflamed, more clearly revealing altered tissue.

Dr. Gipson closed out the meeting by again urging the industry to step up. He stated, “You are at the crossroads and you can either step up and do your job or you can put us in a position where we have to do it for you. And if we’re forced to do it we will do it and we will not be very compassionate. It’s our job to enforce the regulations. Once it gets to be federal, it’s a completely different game.”


Dr. Behre invites everyone in the TWH industry to express their opinions regarding the next operating plan and the HPA.

Dr. Todd Behre, USDA/APHIS Animal Care,
4700 River Rd., Suite 6A02-7,
Riverdale, MD 20737,
(301) 754-3784,

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