On Eraser Heads and Pencil Pushers

Breaking News: A judge has ruled that the USDA must pay $267,167.90 to the plaintiffs in the recent mandatory penalties lawsuit which was decided against the USDA by a federal appeals court. This is less than the amount which was requested by the plaintiffs but is a significant event.  ( See an earlier blog on this siteabout the Equal Access to Justice law which explains how this came to be.)  Further, Mike McGartland, on February 29, 2016, filed a suit in Fort Worth, Texas, that corresponds to the PSHA letter contained in this blog. 

Crime to many is not a crime but simply a way of life. If laws are inconvenient, ignore them, they don’t apply to you.
— Dick Francis

Blessed with an abundance of cedar trees, Shelbyville, Tennessee, was once known as the pencil capital of the USA. Back in the day, every school kid in America had a daily working relationship with the number two pencil.  Classroom warriors were on friendly terms with both the pointy end and the harder working end, the eraser.  Truth is told; depending on the student, the eraser on the #2 often wore out long before the soft leaded pencil was sharpened down into a nub.


Students may not have known the origin of these pencils, but many of them came from middle Tennessee, from a town also known as the show ring capital of the Tennessee Walking Horse.  Shelbyville was so proud of the two drivers of economic important to the town and Bedford County that it proudly emblazoned the big lick walking horse on all its official vehicles and in the town’s official logo.  They might have done better to feature the number two pencils.


These days, some of  those propping up what is left of  the walking horse business, are starting to resemble  the people that Weird Al Yankovic described as pencil-neck geeks in one of his parody songs.  They have gone back to early school days and decided that the old time eraser is their best weapon in the ongoing PR battle surrounding the sore horse. 


The Celebration, headquartered in Shelbyville, is the owner of the SHOW HIO that oversees the majority of inspections in walking horse show rings.  Until TWHBEA’s coyly named Project Pegasus ( the image of a horse trying to fly wearing a performance package continues to amuse and amaze)  can help get the still earthbound Walking Horse Equestrian Federation HIO, honchoed by long time supporter of the big lick horse Tom Blankenship, using the discredited Veterinary Advisory Committee that debuted at the Celebration several years ago as its launch pad, off the ground.   Mr. Blankenship told the local paper in a recent interview that although the Federation is at present owned by the VAC, in the future that ownership will be transferred to some other group yet to be identified.  For now, however, SHOW remains the biggest name in inspection show biz and thus, erasing the past appropriately begins with them.


After what the self-proclaimed  industry has rightly viewed as   a victory in the court of appeals over the USDA and its mandatory penalty regulation, intended by the USDA to curb the worst of the abuses in privately run inspection schemes, by ensuring that all discovered violations of the Horse Protection Act would at least bring about some level of equal treatment from HIO to HIO when penalties were adjudged, SHOW has now  determined  that the best way to deal with violation penalties is to make them go away altogether.


In 2016 there will be no penalties for violations found by SHOW DQPs at horse shows; instead, there will be the inconvenience of being sent back to the trailer, but have no fear, you’ll be welcome to come back to show your horse and try your luck in both inspection and in the ring the next Friday evening. As there are no penalties, there is no bothersome cumulative effect and no worrisome carry over of suspension periods from one year to the next. There are also no time consuming   hearings and  appeals of suspensions requiring a board made up of local citizens  (who didn’t really know much about what they were listening to) dispensing  what  the old-timers used to call “justice in the basement” .


SHOW’s decision has two benefits for the industry: trainers won’t be sitting out horse shows, which makes owners much happier, and more importantly, those pesky record keepers who continue to use the USDA published violation lists submitted by HIOs to inform the public  won’t have any data from which to draw.  


Advocates working  to expose  just how much evidence of soring   and scarring still exists in the big lick world and how much of it can be directly traced to name trainers, their employees,  and their employers, as well as industry leaders,  have used the databases to great effect. While the USDA’s online    system to    find this information is cumbersome, organizations like FOSH have built a user -friendly system to trace decades of issued ticketsas recorded from USDA records   for both individuals and horses.  Without so much as a smudge on the paper, however, all signs of current  violations will now be erased away through the HIO system.  (Who said those kids in classrooms who grew up to be the late middle -aged leaders of the walking horse business wouldn’t  remember anything of importance  from grammar school?)


Why should sound horse advocates care about the actions of the  eraser heads? 


In 2015when the Mississippi Charity Horse show found that the principal recipient of its annual donation no longer was interested in accepting the horse show’s check, one of the driving reasons for that decision was the evidence provided to the hospital board of violations consolidated in a data base maintained from public records provided   by the Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH).  The violation history covered not only trainers and exhibitors but also the records of judges and organizers; it was hard to argue with the list because the data came directly from the industry.  That factual information helped to change attitudes, as did the fact that the individuals involved had   accepted the suspensions and paid the fines, indicating an acceptance of responsibility for the cited violations.


In every op-ed, letter to the editor, or response in comment to stories about the ongoing controversy surrounding the shoeing, training and showing practices aimed at big lick horses, this violation history, showing a pattern of  decades of abuse as well as a proliferation of  current violations, has been used to   demonstrate     that soring has not gone away as the spinners from the show walking horse apologists like to claim.  


Photos of scarred horses, clearly in violation, that have been shown almost until the date of rescue, further  disprove the assertions   that photos of these horses pasterns come from pictures taken  in the 70s, and 80s, a claim recently made in Florida by a representative of the Trainers association whose own history, as well as the documented history of his principal employers, past and present, can charitably only   be described as checkered.


The violation history of the Riders’ Cup participants as well as the history of the judges for major horse shows raises danger flags for everyone who takes the time to look at the data.  You don’t have to know much about horses to know that no other breed or show organization flaunts this sort of documented tail- wagging- the- dog contempt for the law as the performance horse crowd has always done.    Instead of changing its practices, however, what has to be done   is to erase the trail.  Covering their tracks is no longer good enough; the tracks must   cease to exist.


Respectable bodies like the USEF, the organization which regulates equestrian sport in the United States, make a point of listing in detail the name, offense, fine and suspension period of riders and trainers found in violation of the operating rules.  By contrast, the walking horse fancy has long refused to run inspection violations in any of its trade publications or the official magazine of the breed registry, The Voice.  It has been left to advocates for change   to put that information into the public dialogue, tangentially, protecting  unknowing owners from placing their walking horses in training with individuals who have a history of violating the HPA.  


With a diligent rubbing away of the facts and a flick of the eraser crumbs off the paper, that history now will conveniently begin to disappear, but not in time, thankfully, for it not to be available to be put   on display in Panama City Beach, Florida.  There, a citizens’ protest against the upcoming Gulf Coast Charity horse show, scheduled for April, has brought this information not only to the City Council but also to the Tourism Development Board.  The story has received considerable local   media attention and the comments from Floridians haven’t been kind after   learning of  horse abuse masquerading as horse showing.


The Tourism Board was   prepared to donate $25,000 to the show without having a full idea of who the organizers are in relation to the horse business, what their history in regard to the HPA was and is, and without having looked at their tax records, a   record   that will always remain available to the public , to see that money from the shows has in recent years gone primarily to the walking horse racket’s own favorite charity—itself.


TWHBEA, the WHTA, the improvement of the horse show facilities to hold the show, and The Celebration itself have all received more money from recent events than any charitable group operating in Florida.  The show horse community continues to do well under the guise of doing good; the horses continue to be bit players and long suffering actors on the larger stage.   


Access to data matters in this ongoing fight against the sore horse and that’s why the pencil pushers are  intent on making  it disappear.


This brings us to the latest lawsuit contemplated by the Performance Show Horse Association, (PSHA) now raising funds to do some erasing on the federal level, too.  This letter was recently sent to its supporters:


To give credit where credit is due, PSHA has a great idea, here, and there is little   doubt that they will find the funding to proceed.  Having won against mandatory penalties, they have gone back to the McGartland dream team with a constitutional challenge    in order to put the rock permanently in place, which   when turned over has   been allowing the sun to shine in on their activities.


  The fact is that USDA has never been able to prosecute all of the cases for which it takes HPA violation information at the small percentage of horse shows that it attends; that’s why HIOs were created,  to help with enforcement activities at a lower level through     a self-policing    partnership. As we know, that hasn’t worked in the past and won’t be working   in   the penalty and suspension -free future.


Unfortunately, too many of the potential federal   cases are simply written off by the USDA after floating around for years in limbo.  Further, cases that are prosecuted can take years to wind their way through the administrative law proceedings and while those cases drag on, the defendants continue to show horses. 

Violations that produce USDA    7060s are never taken to full court cases and are meaningless in their effect, except for the   public existence   of the forms   that can be referenced by advocates.  The letters of warning themselves are sent to offenders who turn them over and use them as scrap paper, arguing that they prove nothing and mean less    because they have    never been taken to court   over them. 


 If the proposed PSHA challenge were to be successful in the courts, all of the HIO data, all of the warning letters, all of the information that has been     useful to advocates and to investigative reporters in helping to inform as well as to frame the public debate on this issue could simply disappear from public view.  It would be gone in the same way that the number two pencil has been erased by technology. 


All PSHA needs is the money to get going. $125,000 was recently made available through donors to TWHBEA to fund Project Pegasus, the HIO that will take the place of SHOW once all the pieces are put into place by the same old men that have run the industry for years.  Money will surely   also  be made available for PSHA to attempt to get rid of the mechanisms that have created a public record that has begun to plague them   now that the world knows where to go to find the evidence of the continuing practice of   soring.


Since the majority of the people leading that charge are of a certain age, the words to an old country song, “ Make the World Go Away”, should be lyrics that they both    remember and   embrace. 


Full disclosure is not their friend; erasing their mistakes in order to change their answers, just as they once did on their homework or while   copying answers from the kid next to them, is now the business of the day; and, as to the opinion of the rest of the world about their activities…. Well, frankly, they just don’t give a damn.

This is why the veteran trainer    Billy Gray, still serving a federal suspension for violation for the HPA    that will last until 2018 ( and this  wasn’t his first time at the federal suspension rodeo),    was recently awarded the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association’ life- time achievement award. Mr. Gray    was the WHTA’s first honored recipient,  with the glow of the   award intended to erase the dismal   record   of  his past. 


The eraser is a wonderful tool when employed by those who know how to use it to full benefit.  As soon as the   records    disappear, pesky citizens and their protests , troublesome humane groups, and irritating organizations like the AHC and the AAEP and AVMA  and their meddling  will also  disappear once they are  deprived of the information   that they need to fight the battle against the sore horse,  or so this clique hopes.  Let’s all    hope that they’re wrong. It's going to be another court case that decides.