Journal on the Road

2013 AQHA Convention – Focus on Animal Welfare

March 10, 2013

h4>Self-regulation and clear communication are crucial to AQHA’s equine welfare mission and the future of the horse industry.

Panelists at the 2013 AQHA Convention Member Forum on Animal Welfare

Panel members on the Animal Welfare open Member Forum at the 2013 AQHA Convention in Houston, March 8, 2013. (American Quarter Horse Journal photo)

First on the agenda for the 2013 AQHA Convention in Houston was the open members forum, this year devoted to what many consider the No. 1 issue facing horsemen and women today: equine welfare and the protection of our horse from abuse.

The afternoon panel of speakers included industry experts from every corner. Their purpose was to update the membership on the issue – AQHA’s efforts to enhance its animal welfare efforts and outside circumstances affecting the issue in the horse industry at large.

AQHA Animal Welfare Commission

Jim Heird of the Texas A&M University Equine Initiative, College Station, Texas, spoke first as chairman of the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission.

In the past year, the commission’s work has centered around three areas, Heird said:
1. Defining legal and illegal equipment and training practices at AQHA show grounds; 2. Strengthening the AQHA Stewards program; and, 3. Developing recommendations for fines and penalties for those who commit welfare violations.

Heird stressed that the Animal Welfare Commission and the AQHA Stewards program “is not out to get anyone,” it is simply trying to put structure to “what most of you think we should be doing as a breed and an Association.”

The goal is to stop those practices in our industry, especially regarding specific training and equipment use, “that we cannot defend” and that we need to “stop doing (in order) to protect our horses.” He pointed out that the members of the Commission are all respected horsemen and women with longstanding commitments to and care for the American Quarter Horse.

Heird stressed that “stewards are essential to the change we are trying to acquire.” They will be proactive regarding practices they see in the warm-up pens and barns at AQHA-approved shows and events. Their purpose is to inform the uninformed, encourage compliance with the rules and identify abuse and stop it.

The new warnings, fines and penalties that have been approved by the AQHA Executive Committee put into place a means for penalizing abusers and repeat offenders. The new system ranges from a simple warning to substantial monetary fine and AQHA suspension.

The mission of the Animal Welfare Commission is to provide a framework for its members to 1. Identify issues negatively affecting the welfare of the American Quarter Horse; 2. Discuss those issues; and 3. Recommend actions to the Executive Committee that will help protect the American Quarter Horse from inhumane practices and AQHA and its members from the negative impacts associated with those practices.

It also includes an intention to work closely with AQHA Alliance partners in these efforts.

Heird pointed out that the Animal Welfare Commission’s work will be in constant development but is an absolute necessity for our industry.

“We need to address our problems ourselves as horsemen and horsewomen,” he said. “We know what is humane and what isn’t. We need to fix what we all know is unacceptable, and not defend it or ignore it.”

He added: “We want to protect our horse and, in so doing, protect our industry into the future.”

Welfare from Barn to Arena and Congress

AQHA Professional Horseman and judge Stephanie Lynn of Fall Creek, Wisconsin and racehorse trainer Russell Harris of Bandera, Texas, both spoke about the pressures facing trainers in the showing

and racing industry that weigh on animal welfare efforts.

“There is a lot of pressure on trainers and owners to win,” Harris said, plain and simple, both from a monetary gain perspective as well as pure ego. It’s no different from the incentives behind a human athlete’s will to win and the temptations that follow.

While “there are a lot of good trainers … that love their horses and take good care of them,” Harris pointed out, “there are a lot of owners and trainers that want to win at any cost.” He said it is almost impossible for a respectable trainer to successfully compete against a trainer running horses on illegal drugs.

He applauded the state racing regulatory agencies, racing commissions and racetracks that have shown a strong response to racing medication violations and have implemented increased testing. He also commended AQHA’s strong response to medication violations in the past year.

Lynn added her perspective from a showing trainer’s standpoint: “Can I defend what I’m doing? We need (as trainers) to always ask ourselves that, at the show and at home.”

Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council outlined four pieces of equine welfare legislation coming before the current United States Congress.

“It’s huge,” he said. “Our issues are going to be front and center.”

The AHC’s job is to monitor the legislation on behalf of the horse industry as a whole, adding an informed voice and perspective to the discussion in Washington D.C.

Hickey stressed the need for the horse industry to self-regulate regarding equine welfare issues, for the good of the horse and the future of the industry. If we don’t, someone else will.

“Focusing on what’s best for the American Quarter Horse will carry over to what’s best for the industry,” Hickey said.

Dr. Steve Schumacher of the United States Equestrian Federation discussed AQHA’s equine welfare efforts from the perspective of competition random drug testing.

There is a two-fold purpose behind any drug testing program, Dr. Schumacher said: to maintain the safety of horses in competition and to level the playing field in competition. It’s about “horse welfare and fairness.”

Ultimately, the problems behind animal abuse, he pointed out, really reflect a problem with human nature.

“All the ills and all the issues in the equine industry aren’t going to be solved by a laboratory. It’s really going to take a culture change and a culture shift. I commend AQHA for pursuing that aspect of it and addressing things well outside the drug and medication zone (alone).”

The Horse Industry’s Story

The afternoon session ended with American Quarter Horse Journal columnist Dr. Tom Lenz of Zoetis (formerly Pfizer Animal Health) speaking on animal welfare and what has been learned through dealing with the unwanted horse issue.

“It’s a complex issue,” he said, and “we must find common ground” among all the voices weighing in on welfare issues including the public, activists, public officials and horsemen. He added that “emotion and misinformation will often override science and fact and the horse industry,” and AQHA must become the focal point for equine welfare information.

“We need to tell our story or someone else will,” Dr. Lenz said. “And we might not like what they say.”