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Tennessee walking horse trainer pleads guilty to charges of soring
Undercover investigation reveals abusive practices; multiple violations of Horse Protection Act cited.
The Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration is heralded as a festive event, one that showcases the best of the breed and draws hundreds of people to Shelbyville, Tenn., each summer to see which competing horse will be crowned the World Grand Champion. Unfortunately, what happens behind the scenes for some of these horses is hardly worth celebrating.
For decades, the Tennessee walking horse industry has been plagued with reports of soring—a practice utilized by some trainers of purposefully inflicting pain to achieve an exaggerated, high-stepping gait in horses for shows. And now one of the most well-known figures in walking horse training history—one with multiple soring violations under his belt—has been publicly exposed and indicted for his practices.
On May 22, Jackie L. McConnell of Collierville, Tenn., pleaded guilty to charges related to conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act, according to a report from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee. McConnell’s plea came on the heels of an undercover video that was released by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which aired publicly on the May 16 episode of ABC News’ Nightline.
The video was shot over several weeks in 2011 at McConnell’s training and boarding facility, Whitter Stables, in Collierville, Tenn., and shows McConnell and several of his employees applying chemicals to horses’ front legs in an effort to produce an artificial gait for the show ring. Additionally, the video shows horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face and hit with heavy wooden sticks.
“I am deeply disturbed by the cruelty documented throughout our investigation, as should anyone with any level of decency,” says Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the HSUS. “The immense suffering horses often endure simply for the sake of a showy gait is unacceptable.”
This isn’t the first time McConnell has been in violation of the Horse Protection Act, a federal law that prohibits individuals from transporting or showing sored horses. Dating back to 1979, McConnell has faced repeated charges of training or entering sored horses in Tennessee walking horse events, each time being hit with a monetary penalty and disqualification from training. In fact, McConnell was still serving a five-year disqualification term when the undercover video footage was taken in 2011.
Based on the findings from the HSUS undercover investigation, the Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a follow-up investigation and built a case against McConnell, which led to a 52-count indictment against him and three of his employees at Whitter Stables—Jeff Dockery, John Mays and Joseph Abernathy—for conspiracy to violate and substantive violations of the Horse Protection Act.
The indictment on file with the U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, Tenn., alleges that all four individuals conspired to violate the Horse Protection Act by applying prohibited substances, such as mustard oil, to the horses as a means of soring them. The conspiracy is alleged to have begun in 2006 and continued through 2011. The indictment also states that McConnell trained the horses not to react in pain in their legs by inflicting pain elsewhere, in addition to masking evidence of soring.
In McConnell’s plea agreement, he admitted to conspiracy with others to violate the Horse Protection Act and confessed that while on suspension for previous soring charges, he continued to train horses by soring, transporting, entering and showing them at horse shows. His plea agreement also states that he falsified paperwork to show someone else was training the horses and instructed his workers to camouflage evidence of soring damage on the horses’ legs. Specifically, McConnell’s workers used spray paint and magic markers to hide the horses’ hair loss and used numbing agents to temporarily desensitize the horses to pain, according to the HSUS’s investigative report.
The same day that McConnell plead guilty to violating the Horse Protection Act, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Board of Directors voted to suspend McConnell for life from entering the Celebration grounds for any event. They also elected to remove McConnell’s name from the list of Celebration Hall of Fame inductees, permanently remove any pictures or signage of him on the Celebration grounds and ban any horse from entry on the Celebration grounds that is, or is thought to be, under the custodianship of McConnell.
“This action is the strongest we can take and it clearly reflects our disgust with the actions of Mr. McConnell,” says Dr. Doyle Meadows, CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, in a statement on the organization’s website. “His actions are not reflective of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, and we in no way want him associated with our show.”
The public condemnation of McConnell’s actions by the Celebration board was only part of the fallout from the HSUS investigation, as Pepsi Co. dropped its sponsorship of the event shortly after the video aired. The video also generated a response from Congressman Jim Cooper in Tennessee, who signed onto legislation co-sponsored by fellow Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen that would authorize the Agriculture Department to spend up to $5 million to enforce the Horse Protection Act. Although H.R. 2966 is primarily written as an anti-horse slaughter bill, there are specific provisions in the bill that address the detainment of horses thought to be sore, as well as the prosecution of individuals with equipment or substances in their possession that would contribute to the soring of a horse.
Sentencing has been set for McConnell and two of the other defendants for September 10. If convicted, McConnell could face a term of up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, supervised release for up to three years and a $100 special assessment.