USDA inspectors dampen walking horse show

PRESTONSBURG — For the second time in three months, the arrival of USDA inspectors all but shut down a Kentucky walking horse show.

Inspectors were looking for signs of an outlawed type of abuse known as "soring," which involves injuring horses' front feet by chemical or mechanical means to achieve an exaggerated gait.

More than a hundred would-be competitors chose not to show Friday night in the United Performance Racking Horse Breeders & Trainers Association World Celebration at the Prestonsburg Equine Center. A racking horse is a type of Tennessee Walking Horse, the breed protected by the federal Horse Protection Act.

Show spokesman Raymond Hager said they had expected 150 to 200 entries on Friday; 126 horses were shown on Thursday night.

"We'll be lucky to have 30," on Friday, Hager said. In class after class, perhaps one horse showed up to compete for coveted ribbons and trophies. Friday night's crowd was clearly unhappy with the turn of events. The show is scheduled to continue Saturday.

USDA representatives, who were escorted by Kentucky State Police troopers, said federal restrictions did not permit them to comment.

Hager said competitors declined to show because USDA inspections are inconsistent and unfair and nobody wants to risk getting a ticket. "They (competitors) are always afraid. Nobody knows how they're going to check from one show to another," Hager said.

All horses must be inspected to enter the show ring, and winners are usually re-inspected afterwards. The majority of walking horse shows are inspected by paid industry officials; limited by their budget, the USDA veterinary medical officers usually can go to less than 10 percent of the shows each year.

But this was the USDA's second unexpected visit to Kentucky so far in 2008. In July, hundreds of competitors left a walking horse show in Owingsville after the USDA arrived. Both shows were sanctioned by the Kentucky Walking Horse Association.

Violators can be suspended or fined. USDA inspectors typically cite many more violations than industry inspectors do.

Hager said walking horse competitors are being "persecuted" by the federal government and anti-soring groups. "They're being cruel and harsh on us," Hager said.

He said the pull-out by competitors would hurt the charities that the association supports, including several children's charities.

"Why is the government killing a multimillion-dollar industry when they let all the rich people, the racehorses, the saddlebreds (compete) ... they just check their blood," he said, referring to the drug tests the other breeds often undergo. His sport supports charities, he said, while "all the rest of them take care of rich folks."

Hager also objected to recent media coverage of the industry. "We're tired of what you guys are doing," he said.