Horses face new tests at Walking Horse Celebration

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) - Hundreds have descended on Middle Tennessee as part of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, but as the competition gets underway, controversy continues over how the horses are examined for signs of abuse before and after the show.

The Tennessee Walking Horse industry is still dealing with the fallout from 2012 when horse trainer Jackie McConnell was accused and later convicted of animal cruelty charges, as he was trying to encourage his horses to step higher in competition.

This year, new tests to check for abuse have been put in place, but walking horse industry supporters continue to wonder if past years' horse exams are giving their trainers a fair shake.

At issue is the way the USDA inspects horses for sores or scars before and after a showing; horses that show evidence of scarring are disqualified.

“There’s nothing fair about it,” said Jerry Harris, a supporter of the walking horse industry who criticizes the USDA inspection practices.

Harris cites a video taken of a USDA inspection during the Kickoff Classic walking horse competition in Shelbyville in April 2014, in which the inspector can be briefly seen pulling hair apart on a horse to check for a scar underneath. Harris argues that practice can sometimes create the illusion of a scar. The horse in the video was later disqualified for violating the scar rule.

“When they pull their hair apart from left to right, he's creating a crease, and there's your scar,” Harris said.

Wednesday, a newly-formed Veterinary Advisory Council on the Celebration grounds demonstrated additional tests that will be performed on horses competing in the Celebration this year, including X-rays and blood draws.

“They are totally objective, and they provide facts for which an intellectual conversation can take place,” said Tom Blankenship, a spokesperson for the council.

The council said the new tests will provide less room for interpretation and what they called "anecdotal evidence" compared to past years horse exams, but it stopped short of directly criticizing the USDA.

“I'm not talking about anything other than we are dealing with facts, I know of no other parties that have facts comparable to those that will be accumulated at the 2014 celebration,” Blankenship said.

Both the USDA and the Veterinary Advisory Council would have the authority to disqualify horses in the competition this year.

The USDA has stood behind its examination practices, saying parting a horses hair can help check for damage to the skin underneath. The USDA said that practice is just one of many methods used to check for violations in walking horses.

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