The Humane Society of the United States released undercover video footage today revealing cruel treatment of horses in the Tennessee walking horse industry. The subject of the investigation, nationally known trainer Jackie McConnell, notified the federal court in Tennessee last week that he intends to plead guilty to felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act.

The video, shot over several weeks in 2011 at Whitter Stables, operated by McConnell, shows individuals abusing horses by using painful chemicals on the horses’ front legs to force them to perform 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.

The footage also shows horses being brutally whipped, kicked, shocked in the face, and violently cracked across the heads and legs with heavy wooden sticks. The investigator documented the cruel practice of “stewarding”—training a horse not to react to pain during official show inspections of their legs for soreness, by striking them in the head when they flinch during mock inspections in the training barn. The investigation also uncovered the illegal use of numbing agents for the purpose of temporarily masking a horse’s reaction to pain so it can pass official horse show inspections.

“I am deeply disturbed by the cruelty documented throughout our investigation, as should anyone with any level of decency,” said 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. Congress should act swiftly to stiffen penalties, eliminate industry self-regulation, and close other loopholes that have allowed many trainers to continue to abuse horses in violation of the law, undetected and with little or no penalty.”

Dane is a licensed judge for gaited horse shows, and the former president of one of the leading organizations dedicated to the humane care, treatment and training of gaited horses.

Under the Horse Protection Act, it is illegal to transport or show sored horses. McConnell, who was already on a five-year federal disqualification for soring horses, has entered his notice of intent to plead guilty to felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act as alleged in Count I of the indictment. Other defendants in the federal case are expected to plead guilty in the near future. Despite being prohibited from training during his five-year disqualification, prominent owners in the Tennessee Walking Horse community continued to pay McConnell to train their horses to compete in horse shows. Many of the owners have themselves received tickets and suspensions for entering sored horses in shows.

The HSUS also provided local law enforcement with critical evidence leading to the arrest of McConnell and two others charged with 31 counts of violating the Tennessee Cruelty to Animals Statute in a case that is still pending. On March 1, the HSUS assisted the Tennessee 25th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General with the rescue of horses from McConnell’s training operation—many in tremendous pain, their legs seared with scars—evidence the horses had been illegally sored with chemicals over a prolonged period of time.

“We are grateful to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Tennessee 25th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office, for their hard work on this case, and for taking criminal violations of the federal Horse Protection Act and state anti-cruelty law so seriously,” Dane added.

Soring: a painful history

  • 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.
  • The state and federal charges against McConnell and his associates follow another recent federal criminal prosecution involving the practice of horse soring. Last year, a federal grand jury returned a 34-count indictment against 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 year a federal judge sentenced him to serve more than a year in prison.
  • A 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General audit exposed how players 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, and recommended stiffer penalties for violators and the abolishment of the industry’s failed system of self-enforcement.
  • USDA recently released statistics showing that the majority of horses tested for prohibited foreign substances at horse shows had been treated with numbing or masking agents. In response, the HSUS filed a petition in March urging USDA to treat such use as felony interference in the inspection process under the HPA.
  • In 2010, the HSUS filed a legal petition with USDA that asked the agency to take steps to improve its enforcement of the Horse Protection Act. In a positive move, Congress passed a 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that increased funding for HPA enforcement by nearly 40 percent.

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