Federal Regulation, 9 CFR 11.4 – Inspection and Detention of Horses

Each horse owner, exhibitor, trainer or person having custody of, or responsibility for, any horse at any horse show, horse exhibition or horse sale or auction shall allow a USDA representative to reasonably inspect such horse at all times reasonable and places as designated by the USDA representative.

Inspections may be required of any horse which is stabled, loaded on a trailer, being prepared for show, exhibition or sale whether or not such horse has or has not be shown, exhibited or sold or have even been entered for such show, exhibition or sale. Basically, if a horse is on the show grounds or auction grounds, it is subject to inspection by the USDA even if you have not entered the horse for competition or sale.

The USDA may detain for a period not to exceed 24 hours any horse at any horse show, exhibition or sale which is sore or which a USDA veterinarian has probable cause to believe is sore. Such detained horses shall be kept under the supervision of a USDA representative or secured under an official USDA seal in a stall, trailer or other facility. The owner, trainer or person having custody of the horse detained shall be allowed to feed, water and groom the horse provided such normal custodial maintenance is provided under the direct supervision of the USDA representative. Although the USDA has a right to detain and possess any horse it thinks may be sore, I have never heard of this happening in my twenty-five year history as a participant. The USDA has, many times, temporarily detained horses for shorter periods of time, twenty to thirty minutes, which are long enough to miss your class and possibly other classes entered with other horses.

If you read the article about the Horse Protection Act and know what the definition is, coupled with this federal regulation that allows the USDA to inspect horses, the next logical step is to wonder how those inspections take place.

Currently, the USDA swabs the pastern area for foreign substances (See the post on Foreign Substances), observes the horse’s locomotion while it is being led in a tight figure eight pattern, utilizes thermography, digitally palpates the forelimbs, xraying the front hooves and/or using hoof testers, drawing a blood sample, and scanning the eye for positive identification of the horse. (It should be noted that the USDA previously scanned the eye at the first step but agreed to move that process to the end of the inspection due to allegations made that the USDA was accessing information in addition to the identification of the horse)

If you have read the articles about the Horse Protection Act and know that a sore is is one that is suffering pain when walking, trotting or otherwise moving as the result of the intentional infliction using caustic chemicals, tacks, nails and screws that causes lameness or could reasonably be expected to cause lameness, you understand many of the elements currently utilized really doesn’t have a connection to whether a horse is lame or could reasonably become lame.

The AAEP’s sets forth the following lameness examination procedure: (1) Obtaining a medical history on the horse (2) Visual appraisal of the horse at rest, observing conformation, balance, and weight bearing (3) Thorough hands one exam checking muscles, joints, bones and tendons for evidence of pain, heat, swelling or other physical abnormality (4) Use of hoof testers (5) Evaluation of the horse in motion on a flat surface observing from the front, back and side, while watch for deviations in gait and (6) Joint flexion tests

The AAEP also recommends the use of (1) nerve blocks (2) radiographs or xrays (3) scintigraphy (nuclear scanning) (4) ultrasound (5) arthroscopy – a surgical procedure and (6) blood, joint and tissue samples.

From this examination procedure and diagnostic tests, the AAEP developed a Lameness Scale which is:

  1. Lameness not perceptible.
  2. Lameness is difficult to observe and is not consistently apparent regardless of circumstances.
  3. Lameness is difficult to observe at a walk in a straight line but consistently apparent under certain circumstances such as weight carrying.
  4. Lameness is consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances.
  5. Lameness is obvious at a walk.
  6. Lameness produces minimal weight bearing in motion and/or at rest.

As you can see, the USDA’s procedure and the AAEP’s procedure for detecting lameness is quite different.

From a legal point of view, when considering what evidence is irrefutable for the purpose of prosecution of any wrong doer, the focus should be on what is scientific and generally acceptable by the equine community. Foreign substance testing, if it focused on caustic chemicals or irritants at a level scientifically known to cause pain; radiographs or xrays; and blood work would be examples of good evidence that would hold up in Court. Filming locomotion of the horse while walking or weight bearing would proffer sufficient evidence if lameness was apparent. Modalities such as manual palpation of the forelimbs is subject to human error because it relies solely on the human’s interpretation as well as the amount of pressure applied during palpation.

Now is a good time to note that horses entered for competition or sale often undergo numerous inspections both by USDA certified DQPs hired by many shows and sales as well as by USDA personnel before being allowed to compete or be sold. Often times, there is a disagreement in findings between the certified DQPs and the USDA and there have even been disagreements between one DQP and another or between two USDA representatives.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals probably said it best when they stated that current inspections are far more art than science.  Because the USDA heard industry concerns about improper inspections, in early 2015, it agreed to allow custodians undergoing inspections have someone video the inspection.  This allowance was very short lived and was rescinded only after a couple of months.  Professional videographers have been given limited permission to video inspections, with the main limitation being they must video from a great distance from where the inspection is taking place.


inspection blocking

Even when professional videographers are allowed to video from a great distance, it is inevitable that USDA security or other personnel obstructs the view as seen in this photograph from the 2015 World Championships in August, 2015.