PROTECTING WALKING HORSES

Federal inspectors harassed at 2006 show, papers say

'I VERY MUCH FEARED FOR OUR SAFETY'

jpatton1@herald-leader.comSeptember 24, 2008 

Federal veterinarians working to protect Tennessee walking horses from unscrupulous trainers and owners have been cursed, yelled at and threatened in Kentucky.

The work is so dangerous that the veterinary medical officers who enforce the federal law against injuring walking horses to make them step higher — known as soring — come in with their own security. And in Kentucky they now request a state police escort.

Testimony about a 2006 show in Owingsville, which this July also was the subject of controversy, shows the hostility that prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to step up protection.

In sworn statements obtained by the Herald-Leader through a Freedom of Information Act request, vets and others described how the atmosphere at the 2006 Owingsville Lions Club Walking Horse Show became so threatening vets were afraid to leave the inspection area, even to go to the bathroom.

"I very much feared for our safety and believed the crowd was able, and willing, to commit bodily harm," one veterinary medical officer stated. "We knew we could not risk leaving the area. The crowd was whipped-up, and the situation was very tense."

The statements were taken in an investigation into the conduct of Earl Rogers Jr., manager of the show and president of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association.

According to the USDA, Rogers did nothing to control the crowd and instead egged them on; he also was threatening and intimidating, repeatedly crowding the vets and poking a finger at them.

Rogers has denied the allegations. "The (vets) were never threatened either directly or indirectly," Roger said in his signed response to USDA investigators. He refused to comment for this story.

USDA investigators last year asked for maximum administrative penalties to be imposed against Rogers. However, the government closed the case in July, just before this year's show, with a warning to Rogers to control the crowd or risk sanctions for himself and the KWHA.

"While acting (as president) of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association, it is your responsibility for enforcing all provisions of the Horse Protection Act," warned the chief of the enforcement operations. "Failure to do so may result in decertification of your horse industry organization."

Dr. Rachel Cezar, USDA administrator of the Horse Protection Act, told the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, in an e-mail, that Rogers' case "was closed due to lack of prosecutorial merit to grant administrative penalties."

Rogers and others have complained that the USDA inspections are inconsistent and unfair.

But the vets' account of the night was supported by the paid inspectors as well as the mother of a rider. "It seemed as though Earl Rogers did not care that the crowd was getting out of control," the lead paid inspector said.

According to the violation report, during the July 2006 show "a crowd gathered around the inspection area and intimidated and harassed (the vets). Show Management (Rogers) did not provide a safe and adequate inspection area with a means to control crowds and onlookers (so vets) could carry out their duties without interference and with a reasonable measure of safety."

Although either the Bath County sheriff or a deputy had been at the show, they left because of a drowning at Cave Run Lake, Rogers said, and he did not feel the need for more security.

The vets got to the show on July 1, paid to come in, and just watched the inspections that night.

All walking horses are required to be checked before entering the ring to make sure they are not sore or do not have scars considered evidence of previous soring. Winners usually are examined afterwards as well.

Chains wrapped around the horses' front feet are supposed to be weighed to make sure they are less than 6 ounces and the large padded shoes some horses wear should be measured to make sure they are not too big.

Instead, the "inspection process was cursory and we watched him perform incomplete inspections on several horses," one vet said.

The next night, July 2, they came back and notified inspectors and Rogers they were there to monitor inspections and take random swabs of horses' legs to test for illegal substances.

As the night went on, the crowd gathering around the inspection area in increasingly dim lighting grew to between 50 and 75 people.

As people grew increasingly insulting, Rogers allegedly yelled, "This is what you're paying for," referring to the federally funded vets. Rogers said he did not make that statement.

According to the vets, Rogers said spectators had paid admission and therefore were free to congregate around the inspection area and harass them, which he likened to yelling insults at a basketball game.

At one point, a dispute arose over scars on the legs of one horse. The handlers took the horse out of the inspection ring without permission. When asked to return, a handler told the vet to come back to the barn to get the photos.

"This man did not try to hide the fact that he wanted (the vet) to leave the inspection area so they could fight," according to another vet. "This man tried several times, in a very pugilistic manner, to get (the vet) to leave the inspection area."

One of the paid show inspectors said the crowd started yelling and cursing.

"I heard someone in the crowd say that they should get a group of them together and run the (vets) out of town," the show inspector said in a statement. "The crowd did get large and out of control, and I believe Earl Rogers could have moved the crowd."

The other inspector's statement backed that up, saying that by the end the crowd might have grown to more than 100 people. "The crowd did get large and they were shouting things," the second inspector said. "I was concerned for (the vets') safety. I did not see Mr. Rogers try to control the crowd."

Eventually, the horse returned to be photographed. Three horses were written up for Horse Protection Act violations — one for a sore foot and two for scars.

As the show ended for the night and no one came forward to compete in the final class, the ring announcer said, "You can all thank the USDA for ruining our show tonight."

The crowd cheered. Then they cheered and shouted insults as the vets left. Rogers and another man followed the vets to their car.

Rogers' sworn statement disputed the others. He said the crowd was smaller — 20-25 people — and consisted mostly of "curious spectators."

"Of that crowd, some were hollering so that the (vets) could hear them," Rogers said. "What was exactly said, I do not know. I recall comments about the way the (vets) were checking the horses."

He said he did videotape the federal vets but not the private inspectors. "I am unaware of any rule or regulation that prohibits videotaping of (vet) inspections," he said. "While I understand I don't control the (vet) inspections, others do not."

He denied that vets were crowded but said: "As the night went on some of (the crowd's) comments did go over the top. That is why I asked at least one to leave. At no time did anyone cross into the inspection area or even attempt to. At no time were any threatening remarks made or insinuated."

Before this year's show Rogers called the USDA to say he hoped they wouldn't come back because the USDA isn't liked in Owingsville. They came anyway, and hundreds of competitors left rather than risk USDA inspection.

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