A proposed Kentucky law would take the inspection of walking-horse shows out of the hands of private groups and impose new, stiff penalties on those who abuse horses.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, would mandate inspection by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture of all walking-horse competitions and sales. The shows are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but federal inspectors attend less than 10 percent of all shows annually across the country. Instead, most are inspected by people hired by the horse groups that sanction the shows.
Buford said he hopes the law would provide a new weapon to counter an old problem: the illegal practices known as "soring," or deliberately injuring a horse's front feet to encourage an exaggerated, high-stepping gait.
"It appears to me that it's just an inhumane way to do a horse show," Buford said. He said he's had e-mails from constituents who were horrified at the lengths fellow competitors will go with blistering agents, chains and other illegal techniques. "It's kind of like cockfighting and dogfighting. You've got just a few idiots who seem to do it."
Buford's legislation incorporates the federal Horse Protection Act and goes much further than the 1956 Kentucky law currently on the books.
Keith Dane of the Humane Society of the U.S., which helped Buford draft the inspections bill, said it is the first state-based initiative of its kind.
"By having a governmental presence at every show, the horses will be protected at every show in the commonwealth, and that's the goal of the legislation. We think it's an effective way of filling in the gaps when the USDA can't be there."
USDA inspections few, but produce more citations
There usually are about 100 shows and sales every year in Kentucky that fall under the Horse Protection Act, but federal inspectors last year came to only six. At at least three Kentucky shows, competitors left rather than face federal inspection.
The majority of inspections, in Kentucky and elsewhere, are performed by those hired by the horse industry rather than USDA vets.
Buford said his bill is designed to put the job in neutral but regulatory hands.
Anti-soring advocates who studied citation rates at horse shows administered by the Kentucky Walking Horse Association's inspection arm found that USDA inspectors write far more citations; as much as 90 times what the KWHA-hired inspectors found.
The KWHA sanctions most walking-horse shows in the state. KWHA president Joe Herald said last week that he hadn't seen Buford's bill and couldn't comment.
In 2007, the last year posted on the USDA's Web site, paid inspectors in Kentucky found fewer than 100 violations. At most shows, even those with hundreds of horses, no citations were written. At the six attended in 2008 by the USDA, which conducted about 250 inspections overall, 37 violations were found.
Walking-horse groups have argued for more self-regulation and less by the USDA, which they say is often arbitrary and overzealous in enforcement of the Horse Protection Act. To address those concerns, the USDA has moved toward less subjective and more scientific methods for detecting problems, such as swabbing legs for banned substances and thermal scans to look for soreness.
Last summer, the influential American Association of Equine Practitioners, based in Lexington, in a "white paper" on soring recommended that private inspection programs be abolished and all inspections be performed by vets.
Fees, fines would pay for enforcement
Cost is a factor at both the federal and the state level.
"This hinges a considerable amount on whether they (the Kentucky Department of Agriculture) accept to be the enforcers, and I'm uncertain on that at this point," Buford said. "I think they would like to see a revenue source."
Buford's bill would pay for the inspections with a $100 per show license fee and a $10 per horse inspection fee, which he said is similar to what competitors now pay to the industry groups that do the inspections.
The legislation also would fund the program with hefty fines imposed on violators.
For a first offense, violators would be fined between $1,000 and $2,500. For a second offense, violators could be fined up to $5,000 and would be banned for a year from any participation in showing as a competitor, coach, official, or even being on the grounds during a show or sale.
Third-time offenders could be fined up to $10,000, with a two-year ban and a jail sentence from 90 days to a year.
Buford said that although the fine structure could be useful to help pay for the inspections, he thinks the bans are likely to be a bigger deterrent.
The program could generate more than $150,000 in fees annually. The department would have the authority to set whatever fee structure might be necessary to cover costs.
Buford said he thinks it could cost the program about $50,000 to $60,000 to "spot check" shows.
"To have someone at every single event would be ideal. But I think we'd have to start with a more scaled-down version," he said. Even at that rate, he said, the department could have a surplus of funds.
Kentucky Department of Agriculture spokesman Bill Clary said the department supports the bill in concept but is concerned about financing it. "The idea behind the bill is something that we'd be in favor of," Clary said. "What we're not sure about is whether this funding mechanism is sufficient to pay for the cost of enforcing it."
Department's workload would increase
The department already performs inspections at major livestock shows, including the state fair. Adding walking-horse shows would increase the workload: in 2007, there were about 17,000 horses entered at Horse Protection Act-covered events across the state, sometimes with more than a half-dozen shows across the state on busy summer weekends.
Dane said a Humane Society analysis indicated that the program would pay for itself.
"We're hopeful the state will take it seriously and realize there is a significant problem. We acknowledge this is not the best time financially to be adding new spending, but we're asking essentially the participants in this industry to pay the bill for this inspection program through the fees and fines," he said. "We hope to be able to put a system in place that doesn't cost the taxpayers anything more, and puts the financial burden on the people benefiting from this activity."
The bill has been sent to the Senate Agriculture Committee. Buford said the chairman, Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, is also interested in the bill and they hope to hold a hearing on it.
Walking-horse groups under scrutiny
The proposed legislation comes at a time when walking-horse groups are under increased scrutiny.
Earlier this month, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted to withhold money from the Kentucky Walking Horse Association until it can resolve questions about how well horses are protected. In the past, the state has given the group a lucrative breeders' incentive fund.
The KWHA is lobbying legislators to pressure the racing commission to restore its breeders' incentive fund.
Dane, of the Humane Society, touts the bill as another way to ensure that the horses are treated properly.
"If we could enlist the support of the state Department of Agriculture to protect the state's horses and the state's reputation as the horse capital of the world by helping to identify and eliminating soring, we felt then we should try to pursue that avenue," he said.