A controversial breed might be getting a new hoof in the door at the Kentucky Horse Park, and equine welfare groups are not happy.
The Horse Park is in negotiations to allow a sale this month of Tennessee walking horses, possibly including some wearing controversial hoof pads that exaggerate their gait. The Kentucky After Christmas Sale hopes to offer about 300 horses for sale Jan. 25 and 26.
Horse Park director John Nicholson said that legal activities have a right to use the state-run park. Padded horses are legal — although several groups headquartered on the park's campus, including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, are working to change that.
The organizers of the sale say they want to be transparent and will use inspectors that the state specifies.
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But questions have been raised about one of the sale's partners, David Landrum, who was accused of abuse last summer involving a horse in his care.
History of the sale
For 25 years, the Kentucky After Christmas Sale was at Tattersall's at The Red Mile, but that facility has been demolished.
State Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, a prominent walking horse advocate and breeder, said she lobbied to keep the sale in Lexington. She said she doesn't see why this should be newsworthy.
"It was either move it or keep it in Lexington," she said. "If I'm going to breed a horse, I want to be able to sell it here."
Webb herself has been cited by North Carolina horse show inspectors in the past year for violating the federal Horse Protection Act.
Renting the Horse Park's Alltech Arena is proving unpopular with horse advocates who argue that a state facility devoted to horses should not provide a showcase for people who might be involved in what they consider abusive practices.
"The Kentucky Horse Park is a public facility. Families go there. We question whether it is appropriate for padded, chained horses to be shown there," said Teresa Bippen, president of Friends of Sound Horses. "That horse was banned from the World Equestrian Games. Nobody wanted to see that horse there."
During the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Horse Park, Games organizers would not allow padded Tennessee walking horses to perform.
Given that and the bad publicity in the past few years concerning padded horses, the Horse Park seems to be going "against the tide," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
"Kentucky is supposed to be the Horse Capital of the World, supposed to love its horses," he said. "This is a serious problem in the industry that isn't being addressed. Providing new venues for that kind of horse to be shown and sold, particularly the Kentucky Horse Park, which is a top-level, state-run park, is a disconnect."
The question of whether to allow the sale will be on the agenda for the Kentucky Horse Park Commission at its board meeting Wednesday. The contract for the venue has yet to be signed, and the commission could block the sale.
The Horse Park is funded by revenue from events at the park, with supplementary revenue from the non-profit Horse Park Foundation and from the state.
Last year, the park came under scrutiny from the General Assembly when Gov. Steve Beshear requested an additional $3.5 million appropriation for the park despite its drawing a record number of new major events. That could make turning away a paying customer difficult. Rental of the arena and stalls could generate about $10,000 for the park.
Nicholson said he has received numerous calls and e-mails from people concerned about the sale, which usually has at least a few dozen padded horses — animals wearing thick front horseshoes used to help create an exaggerated, high-stepping gait known as "the big lick."
The big lick is often associated with the worst abuses under the federal Horse Protection Act, including "soring," the deliberate injuring of walking horses' front legs.
The painful treatments that trainers sometimes use to encourage the big lick include painting caustic chemicals on the horse's front legs, piling on heavy chains that bounce on tender spots, applying huge padded shoes, or inserting objects (including nails, tacks or golf balls) under the pads to create sore feet, a practice known as "pressure shoeing."
Allegations made online
David Landrum, vice president of the Kentucky After Christmas Sale, and some perennial horse sellers at the sale have been associated with violations of the federal Horse Protection Act.
A database of HPA violations lists five suspensions for Landrum from 1997 to 2010 — for soring, for putting a foreign substance on a horse's leg, for violating show rules and for verbal abuse.
Last summer, Landrum also was involved in a dispute that erupted online involving a horse allegedly abused while at his stables to be trained. It remains unclear exactly what happened to the horse and when.
A mare named Jose's Wine and Roses was brought to a new trainer, Joe Cotten, a Louisville native and a former Landrum employee who now lives in Bell Buckle, Tenn.
Cotten said that when she arrived he was shocked at the condition of the horse's feet and posted photos on Facebook. He also demanded to know how she had passed previous inspections by officials from the USDA-accredited horse-industry group called SHOW, an acronym that stands for "Sound horses, Honest judging, Objective inspections, Winning fairly."
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Cotten said L.M. Murphy, husband of owner Deborah Murphy, told him the mare had been in Landrum's barn.
Cotten said the horse also was examined by a veterinarian who took separate photos of the horse's front feet. Copies of those photos — obtained by the Herald-Leader, labeled "Jose's Wine and Roses" and dated June 18, 2012 — appear to show scars and injuries.
Deborah Murphy said Friday that she thinks the injuries happened while the mare was with Cotten.
"She was fine. ... I was there every week, and she was fine," Murphy said. "When this fiasco on Facebook came out, my husband picked her up. ... She was fine when she went there; after a week, she wasn't. I know it had to happen at Joe Cotten's. ... Why Joe Cotten put this on the Internet is beyond any of us."
Murphy said there are no photos with the report she got from the vet who examined the mare at Cotten's barn. She declined to release the report to the Herald-Leader. Murphy later said that the veterinarian has told her no photos were taken.
"It's none of your business. None of this is," Murphy said. "I want to close the book on this. I don't want to go through this again."
The veterinarians, Dr. John Bennett and Dr. Belinda Mendenhall, did not return calls from the Herald-Leader.
Landrum told the Herald-Leader that Jose's Wine and Roses had not been sored. He said she had been shown in 2011 at the National Futurity in Shelbyville, Tenn., and was inspected at the time by the USDA.
"I don't know what horse those photos were of," Landrum said. "The horse left my place in great shape."
Cotten insisted the Facebook and vet photos are of the horse Murphy brought him that day from Landrum's stable and that the injuries did not occur in the days she was under Cotten's care.
Cotten, who also has multiple HPA violations according to an online database, said no industry investigators had ever contacted him about the incident but he wrote online in June that he had been warned that walking horse insiders would "drop the hammer" on him.
Within days, Cotten was handed a 7½ -year suspension and fined $5,000 by SHOW inspectors. "It's a classic whistle-blower case is what it is," Cotten said.
SHOW is accredited by the USDA to license designated qualified persons to inspect walking horses at shows and sales for signs of soring, including scars, tender legs or foreign substances.
Landrum said SHOW officials investigated Jose's Wine and Roses and found no problem.
That is not entirely accurate.
SHOW interim leader Mike Inman told the Herald-Leader that the group stepped in and took the horse to a vet for at least two weeks of care.
"It needed medication attention to get its feet back in proper condition," Inman said. "I was not here at the time, but I know the horse was taken, at SHOW's expense, and given treatment. This was done as a goodwill gesture for the good of the horse."
SHOW did not establish how or when the horse got in that condition.
Inman said the group doesn't have the authority to examine records related to the horse's circumstances outside the show ring.
"Joe Cotten claims one thing, David Landrum another, and the owner claims another. We can't decide what's right or wrong," Inman said.
SHOW had previously been the inspecting horse-industry organization for the Kentucky After Christmas Sale but will not be this year, because the USDA is attempting to decertify SHOW, which would strip the group of the authority to inspect shows or sales.
Protecting horse, park
Landrum and the sale's president, Jerrold Pedigo, both said that USDA standards are upheld at the sale.
"We've never conducted a sale without inspectors certified by the USDA," Pedigo said.
There have been horses that failed inspection, he said.
"They're seldom ... but they have occurred," he said. "That's the whole purpose of having the inspections. We have to make sure they don't get in the sale."
To ensure that there are no sore horses at the Horse Park, director Nicholson said, the state specified which horse industry organization will supply the inspectors.
The International Walking Horse Association — one of three accredited to inspect walking horse shows that want to be eligible to receive funds from the taxpayer-funded Kentucky Breeders' Incentive Fund — will do the inspections.
Nicholson said he has urged the USDA to send federal inspectors, something that often causes trainers and riders to flee horse shows in Kentucky and elsewhere to avoid that scrutiny.
Pedigo said he would welcome USDA involvement and wants the sale to be transparent.
"I would hope the main goal is make sure the participants follow the law," Pedigo said. "So long as we do that, the system put in place protects the animal. I can certainly appreciate, respect and agree with those individuals who don't want to see an animal sored."
Nicholson said the state has taken steps to ensure that all walking horses at the sale are protected. Walking horses are popular for trail riding as well as other kinds of sports and have sweet dispositions, he said. The Horse Park's Parade of Breeds includes some Tennessee walking horses that are "flat-shod," meaning they do not have padded hooves.
The Horse Park "is a public facility, publicly supported," Nicholson said. "Law-abiding people who love and properly care for their horses have the right to utilize it. Soring of horses to enhance performance is abhorrent, repugnant, immoral and, thankfully, illegal.
"Illegal practices will not happen at the Kentucky Horse Park."
Landrum said that the Kentucky After Christmas Sale could be an important move to rehabilitate the image of the Tennessee walking horse and bring it back into the mainstream.
"We believe we can bring a product that will be accepted. We have faith in the consignors and the horses they're bringing," Landrum said. "I think this could be a breakthrough and people could realize what a nice animal we have. We want people to come out. I think it can all be a very, very positive thing. It's important to give this breed a chance. We're coming in the right way."
Whether that will be enough is unclear. Groups including the National Walking Horse Association, which is headquartered at the Horse Park, are skeptical. The NWHA promotes flat-shod Tennessee walking horses and prohibits the use of pads in all events.
"I feel like if the International Walking Horse Association does the inspections, only sound horses will show," said Jason Crawhorn, NWHA president.
Will that include padded performance horses?
"If the performance horses still show up at the sale."