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USDA cracks down on Walking Horse industry with stronger rules

Posted on Wednesday, May 8, 2024 at 8:00 am


Once again, the future of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry hangs in the balance, and once again, the rulings of the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service (APHIS) will be challenged in court.

The decision and the timing of the announcement as well as the enforcement date are not surprises to the walking horse industry leaders. The 225-page document issued by the USDA affects only Tennessee Walking Horses and racking horses.

“We will work diligently with our attorneys, The Torridon Group, to prepare for our next steps, which could include a lawsuit brought by TWHNCA,” Celebration CEO Warren Wells said. “This is a serious issue for The Celebration, our breed, and our local community. However, we are as prepared as we can be and look forward to our next steps.”

Torridon Law PLLC advises and represents clients in connection with litigation; government enforcement, regulatory, and legislative matters and commercial disputes according to the firm’s website.

“The Celebration has always been committed to working with our regulators to protect the welfare of the horses we all love so much,” Wells said. “The recent USDA rule seems to throw out the baby with the bathwater and is without adequate justification. The Federal government in this area, like many others, is out of control and has succumbed to the will of far-left activists to decimate our show horses.”

Stronger regulations

“For far too long, some within the Tennessee Walking Horse industry have sored and abused their horses, despite the industry’s inspection process and our own enforcement efforts,” said Jenny Lester-Moffitt, Under Secretary for USDA Marking and Regulatory Programs. “This abuse must stop. Eliminating this cruel practice will help protect horses competing in these shows and level the playing field for the industry. The independent inspection process should strengthen the competition at these shows and benefit the many owners and trainers who do right by their animals.”

The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA) has issued an executive summary of the new rules provided by Mark Farrar, Executive Director:

Timing: The Rule will largely take effect on February 1, 2025. Only one provision, relating to the training of new Horse Protection Inspectors (“HPIs”) will take effect earlier, within 30-days after the Rule is published in the Federal Register.

Because this is a final rule adopted after notice and comment, even if there were a change in administrations after the election this fall, the rule could be withdrawn only if the new Secretary or Administration directs its withdrawal and after another round of notice and comment proceedings. If Republican Donald Trump wins, he cannot put a hold on an already published Rule.

Due Process: The Final Rule completely bans the use of action devices and pads by Tennessee Walking Horses and racking horses during competition. USDA acknowledges that action devices and pads do not, in themselves, cause soring.

But USDA argues that there is a “disproportionately high incidence of soring” in Tennessee Walking Horses who compete using action devices and pads. In response to concerns raised by the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Association (TWHNCA) that these provisions would devastate the industry, USDA reiterates its belief that horses currently competing in the performance divisions could be retrained to compete in the flat-shod division.

Weighted shoes and bands are allowed.

Ban on Substances: The Final Rule completely bans the use of all substances on the extremities above the hoof of any Tennessee Walking Horse or racking horse during competition. USDA notes that the only change from existing limitations on the use of substances is that the new ban includes lubricants.

While USDA acknowledges that lubricants do not cause soring, it believes that they can be used to mask soring. It also states that there is no longer a need for lubricants given the ban on action devices.

Scar Rule: In seeking to modify the Scar Rule, the Proposed Rule provided a non-exhaustive list of “dermatologic conditions that are indicative of soring” which, if found by an inspector, would require the horse to be deemed sore.

The Agency acknowledges that the list of conditions may or may not be evidence of actual soring. Thus, USDA modified the language of the new Scar Rule to indicate that a horse may or may not be disqualified based on the presence of any one such condition. The new rule leaves it entirely to the subjective judgment of the inspector, based on his or her experience, to decide whether a particular dermatologic condition is evidence that warrants finding a horse to be sore. Also no grandfathering was provided; all horses are subject to the new scar rule language.

Abolition of the DQP Program: The Final Rule eliminates the (Designated Qualified Person (DQP) Program and any role of (Horse Industry Organization (HIOs) under the regulations. Under the Final Rule, USDA-authorized Horse Protection Inspectors (“HPIs”), along with USDA’s own veterinary medical officers (VMOs), would be responsible for inspections.

“First and foremost, we remain committed to collaborating with regulatory authorities to achieve our shared objectives and safeguard the future of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, however we must express our deep concern regarding the proposed changes,” Farrar said. “The USDA’s attempt to enact sweeping alterations without adequate justification or supporting data is troubling.


“Such measures threaten to dismantle a significant portion of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and impose an unwarranted and burdensome government takeover of the inspection system, which has been effectively enforcing regulations for nearly half a century.”

Community damage

If you have never watched a Tennessee Walking Horse in person or even set foot inside the Celebration Grounds, if these new regulations are implemented communities, especially Shelbyville, are going to feel the effects of collateral damage.

“Many towns of all sizes hosts walking horse shows through civic clubs and other organizations as fundraisers,” Farrar said. “While we acknowledge the imperfections in the current system, we firmly believe that it is superior to the proposed alternative, which risks rendering many shows financially unsustainable and jeopardizing the future of our breed.”

Farrar stressed the effects of this new rule would go far beyond the show ring.

“Central to our concerns is the potential impact on our grassroots community,” Farrar said. “Tennessee Walking Horse shows serve as vital hubs for middle-class Americans, offering opportunities for competition and camaraderie in small communities across the nation.

“These events often serve as fundraising platforms for local civic groups, further underscoring their importance. Any regulatory changes must be implemented in a manner that preserves the accessibility and affordability of these shows, ensuring their continued viability and success.”