Nationally known Tennessee Walking Horse trainer Jackie McConnell and several of his associates have been indicted on 52 counts of violating the federal Horse Protection Act (including 18 felony counts), and also charged with numerous violations of the Tennessee Cruelty to Animals Statute.
The Humane Society of the United States is assisting the Tennessee 25th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General with the rescue of horses from McConnell’s training operation.
The indictments, criminal charges and horse rescue come on the heels of an extensive investigation into the walking horse industry by The HSUS, which shows that the high-stepping gait or "big lick" of the Tennessee Walking Horse often comes at a painful price. As described in the indictment, the trainers used painful chemicals on the horses’ front legs, using pain to force them to have an artificially high-stepping gait for show competitions. This cruel practice, known as “soring,” has been illegal for more than 40 years under the federal Horse Protection Act.
Soring is also specifically prohibited by Tennessee’s animal cruelty law. In addition to soring, HSUS documented horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face and violently cracked across the heads and legs with heavy wooden sticks. In some cases, their tails were mutilated with scissors and blades in order to make them appear flashier in the show ring – leaving behind untreated bleeding wounds. During The HSUS investigation, a young filly named Master Streaker was so painfully sore that McConnell himself referred to her as “paralyzed.”
“The cruel training methods documented throughout our investigation are sickening to watch for any horse lover, and show the immense suffering horses often endure simply for the sake of a high-stepping gait,” said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for The HSUS and Maryland director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association. “Horses entertain us and provide us companionship, and should not be subject to this horrible cruelty and abuse.” Dane is also the former president of one of the leading organizations dedicated to the humane care, treatment and training of gaited horses.
The HSUS expressed its thanks to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Attorney William C. Killian of the Eastern District of Tennessee, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven Neff and Kent Anderson, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, and District Attorney General D. Michael Dunavant and Assistant District Attorney General Mark E. Davidson for the Tennessee 25th Judicial District for taking decisive action in this case.
Many winning trainers in the walking horse industry have repeatedly been found in violation of the Horse Protection Act, yet continue to train and sore horses for customers while on suspension from showing.
Jackie McConnell was on a five year federal disqualification from showing at the time of the HSUS investigation. The HSUS is calling on Congress to increase funding for USDA’s enforcement of the Horse Protection Act to crack down on this rampant abuse in the industry.
The state and federal charges against McConnell and his associates follows another recent federal criminal prosecution involving the practice of horse “soring.” Last year, a federal grand jury returned a 34-count indictment against Tennessee horse trainer Barney Davis and three others, charging them with violations of the Horse Protection Act and related financial crimes. Davis was further charged with fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. He pleaded guilty to several counts last November, and earlier this week a federal judge sentenced him to serve more than a year in prison.
The HSUS was provided pro bono counsel in the matter by the Washington, D.C. office of Latham & Watkins LLP.
- The most common form of soring is performed by applying caustic chemicals to the pasterns (ankles) of show horses — sensitizing the area and forcing the horse to lift his front legs high off the ground in reaction to the pain. The horses are then ridden and shown with metal chains around their ankles, which further accentuate the high-stepping action with each painful stride. Soring often leaves telltale scars, including tissue change, calluses, bleeding, inflammation, and skin and hair loss—all of which are evidence of this cruel and illegal practice.
- Several horse industry organizations that are certified by USDA to conduct HPA inspections have consistently failed to detect and disqualify non-compliant horses at a rate comparable to that of the agency's own veterinary medical officers. Yet no such organization has ever been decertified for non-compliance, as authorized by the HPA and regulations.
- A 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General audit exposed how those in the walking horse industry work to evade detection, rather than comply with federal law and train horses humanely. The audit stated that the USDA needs more funding for full enforcement of the Act.
- In 2010, The HSUS filed a legal petition with USDA that asked the agency to take steps to improve its enforcement of the Act. In a positive move, Congress passed a 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that increased funding for HPA enforcement by nearly 40 percent.