Thousands of people have come to Shelbyville to watch and participate in the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, but the event has also attracted scrutiny over concerns of abuse.
Each horse is inspected several times before it goes into the ring, but the USDA, which enforces the Horse Protection Act, has the final say.
And after a local inspection nonprofit recently sued the USDA over the way it does its job, you can imagine the suspicion as federal inspectors this year have disqualified horse after horse after horse.
"The USDA is wrongly disqualifying sound horses from The Celebration," said SHOW President Dr. Stephen L. Mullins.
During last year's Celebration, inspectors disqualified eight horses. So far this year, with several days of competition left, that number sits at 47.
"For a horse to pass one night and then not pass the next night - I don't care if some unscrupulous trainer sored the fire out of him that night - he would not have a scar from soring the next day. It is impossible, medically impossible, for that to happen," Mullins said.
The focus seems to center on a single USDA inspector, Earnest Johnson. Those who support trainers released an email, which in part seems to suggest he hates horses.
"I would think it would be crazy to say that that hasn't played some part in what's going on," said Jeff Howard, with the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Humane Society released a taped interview Tuesday with a former trainer.
"You're not going to win if you don't sore," Barney Davis said in the video. "A lot of the owners can't be that dumb to think that a horse walks that way without something being done to it."
A spokeswoman for the Celebration called the video a plan "to fuel their fundraising and public relations machines."
"I just think it's sour grapes. I think it's someone that, you know, was upset that he was given a lifetime suspension in the industry and unfortunately, has gone to smear tactics to try to make a name for himself," Howard said.
In a demonstration Tuesday, an independent doctor re-inspected a disqualified horse to show the process and make a ruling that for many calls into question other USDA inspections.
"This horse should be able to show. And the problem we have is if this horse gets turned down on Thursday night, he's out for the 10-day show," said Dr. John Bennett.
Last week, Channel 4 reported the Humane Society bought a billboard near the site of the Celebration. The ad asked for tips on suspected horse abuse, and officials with the Humane Society said Tuesday they have received at least eight tips so far. But they wouldn't say how those cases panned out.
The Celebration crowns a new world grand champion on Saturday night.
Copyright WSMV 2012 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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