McConnell opposed USDA inspectors of sored horses (Ky)

By JOHN CHEVES | Lexington Herald-Leader | Posted on Sun, Aug. 31, 2008 on Source: Kentucky.com | jcheves@herald-leader.com

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pressured the U.S. Department of Agriculture for years to back off its enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, even threatening to cut the agency’s funding, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Leader.

Big Lick Photo from TWHNC website and not filed with this storyMcConnell has sup- ported the Tennessee Walk- ing Horse industry in its battle against USDA inspectors who look for evidence of soring, the illegal practice of deliberately injur- ing a horse’s front feet to get it to step higher in an exaggerated style known as “the Big Lick.”

McConnell backed the industry’s demand for its own inspectors — paid by the industry, drawn from the ranks of horse owners and trainers — to have a greater role in soring inspections, rather than the independent USDA veterinarians who uncover and report soring more frequently.

At the same time, the industry gave McConnell tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations and hired his Senate chief of staff, Niels Holch, as its Washington lobbyist and attorney.

“McConnell probably has caused more problems for horse protection single-handedly than any other person. He set the cause of horse protection back by years,” said Donna Benefield, administrative director of the Horse Protection Commission, a USDA-certified inspection organization in Gallatin, Tenn.

“He has supporters here (in Tennessee) — financial supporters, if not people who can vote for him — who are doing illegal things and don’t want to get caught,” Benefield said. “It’s very important to them that the law be loosely enforced. Sen. McConnell has been their champion in that.”

McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who stands for re-election Nov. 4, declined to be interviewed for this story or answer the written questions that his office requested.

In a prepared statement, McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said:

“Over the years, Sen. McConnell has been pleased to work with Sen. Wendell Ford and other members of the Kentucky delegation and Senate on behalf of this important industry. In 1998, Sen. McConnell joined Sen. Ford and several others in sending a letter to the USDA to express their support to improving enforcement and correcting the regulatory problems as to how the walking horse industry is inspected.”

Holch, the McConnell aide turned lobbyist, declined to comment.

David Pruett, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association, and a McConnell campaign donor, said he recognized McConnell as a friend of the industry. But Pruett said he’s never personally met McConnell and is not familiar with the senator’s specific actions regarding the Horse Protection Act.

USDA spokeswoman Jessica Milteer said the agency would not publicly discuss McConnell’s activities.

“From the USDA’s perspective, we are enforcing the Horse Protection Act to the best of our ability,” Milteer said. “That’s really all that we can say.”

Congress hobbles USDA

In a series of letters to the agriculture secretary and in legislation, McConnell has told the USDA to withdraw its inspectors from more Tennessee Walking Horse events and let the industry conduct more of its own soring examinations.

USDA inspectors are so unpopular with horse owners and trainers, who fear soring citations and subsequent suspensions and fines, that participants sometimes flee events if the USDA is reported to be there. When USDA inspectors came to a July show in Owingsville, hundreds of competitors left rather than let their horses be examined.

Industry self-policing — the system urged by McConnell — does not uncover soring as effectively. According to studies, USDA inspectors are far more likely to discover and punish soring than industry inspectors.

In 2007, the violation rate at Tennessee Walking Horse shows was 15 times higher on average when the USDA was present, according to an analysis released this month by Friends of Sound Horses, an anti-soring advocacy organization.

The largest group of horse veterinarians — the Lexington-based American Association of Equine Practitioners — said this month that the industry’s self-inspection program “should be abolished, since the acknowledged conflicts of interest which involve many of them cannot be reasonably resolved.”

It’s an obvious conflict to give inspection authority to industry participants who show horses themselves, said Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, a former USDA administrator who oversaw the agency’s Horse Protection Program. Some industry inspection groups are led and staffed by people who were cited for soring their own horses.

“You have lay inspectors basically checking out the horses of their friends and neighbors,” said DeHaven, executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

But the industry is allowed to monitor itself most of the time because Congress limits funding for the USDA’s Horse Protection Program to $500,000 a year and sometimes provides even less. As a result, USDA veterinarians inspect fewer than 10 percent of Tennessee Walking Horse shows.

When the USDA has tried to give its inspectors a stronger oversight role, the industry has pushed back — with McConnell’s help.

In a curt 1998 letter to the USDA, McConnell said the industry was upset about government inspectors — the industry canceled an important horse show, he said — and he warned the agency that he would cut its horse-protection budget for the next year if it didn’t give primary authority for soring inspections to the industry.

McConnell sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which decides federal spending. A dozen other senators — all but one of them Republican — signed that letter behind McConnell.

McConnell’s voice heard

McConnell kept the pressure on the USDA as it battled the Tennessee Walking Horse industry over soring. He dropped language into the 1999 agriculture spending bill instructing the USDA to resolve its “conflicts” with the industry over inspections. More letters to the agriculture secretary followed in the next few years.

“With more than 800 walking horse shows held in the United States each year, the Department does not have the resources to attend all,” McConnell reminded the USDA in a 2000 letter. “The limited resources (of the USDA) will not allow government veterinarians to attend more than 6 percent of these shows.”

Said DeHaven, the former USDA administrator: “Sen. McConnell’s letters came from an organized contingent within the industry that wanted the appearance of regulation without true regulation.”

“The fact is that over 30 years after passage of the law (against soring), we still have sored horses. We aren’t where we need to be,” DeHaven said.

While McConnell championed the industry from Capitol Hill, his former chief of staff, Niels Holch, lobbied the USDA and Congress to promote an interpretation of the Horse Protection Act that was more favorable for his employers at the National Horse Show Commission and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association.

They made an effective pair, said Robin Lohnes, executive director of the American Horse Protection Association.

“The senator and Niels were advocating a partnership between the USDA and industry on enforcement, but with the industry serving as the senior partner and not the junior partner,” Lohnes said.

McConnell is a powerful senator, so when he expressed displeasure, word spread through the federal bureaucracy, former USDA officials said.

“We’d hear the name ‘Mitch McConnell,’ that he was one of the ones exerting pressure on us. Like, ‘If you don’t back off, we’re gonna cut your funding,'” said Dr. Tom James, a longtime USDA veterinarian and horse inspector based in Tennessee, now retired.

This chilled the agency’s desire to enforce the law, James said.

“When the USDA’s appropriations are threatened, it basically sends the message that you better back off and give industry what it wants,” James said.

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Reach John Cheves at (859) 231-3266 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3266.

PLEASE NOTE: The photograph accompanying this posting was not used in the original story above. We found it on the internet, and it was attributed to the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration website. We are using it here to illustrate the “big lick,” and has been altered to include the white circles you see, the end. ~TH

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