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September 19, 2012

$75,000 Fine and Probation Handed Down in Notorious Horse Soring Case

Yesterday, in a packed Chattanooga courtroom, the Hon. Harry S. Mattice, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee, handed down penalties in the horse abuse case involving Jackie McConnell—the Hall of Fame trainer of Tennessee walking horses, who in 2011 was captured on tape by an HSUS undercover investigator intentionally injuring the animals under his charge in order to get them to step higher and win ribbons at horse shows. 

McConnell is now a convicted federal felon. The judge fined him $75,000 and sentenced him to three years supervised probation—specifically requiring him to report “any involvement with horses” to his probation officer—and to 300 hours of community service to be performed for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s the stiffest sentence ever handed down under the Horse Protection Act.

Tennessee walking horse at the Celebration
Chad Sisneros/The HSUS
Horse soring is not only cruel, but a serious crime.

Like many, I would have liked to see McConnell do time in prison for the horrible things he did to horses–not just the ones that our investigator filmed him abusing, but all of the hapless creatures who were unlucky enough to fall under this man’s control. McConnell still faces 15 charges of violating Tennessee’s cruelty to animals statute in a pending case, and his guilty plea in federal court virtually guarantees the charges will stick. The threat of jail time still looms for McConnell in the state’s case.

But justice was done yesterday–and a signal was sent to every lawbreaker in the world of Tennessee walking horse shows that you don’t get away with abusing animals any longer. There’s no immunity for those who unlawfully torture horses to win ribbons–whether they’re the owners or the trainers. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Neff made it abundantly clear that when evidence of these crimes is reported, offenders will be prosecuted.

As the United States argued in court yesterday, there’s a defect in the underlying law—the Horse Protection Act, which has not been upgraded since 1976—that allowed Jackie McConnell to maintain some measure of freedom in spite of the crimes he committed. Last week, we took a big step toward correcting it by working with humane-minded lawmakers to introduce legislation to expand the range of prohibited acts related to soring and to impose meaningful penalties for violations of the law.

This whole controversy is about more than Jackie McConnell. He is one trainer among dozens who have operated in a professional subculture that not only tolerates soring, but believes it’s essential to win.

Punishing McConnell is needed in order to see justice served. But if we stopped there, we’d be missing the point. Just as we’d be missing the larger point if we only wished to see Michael Vick punished, understanding that he was one of tens of thousands of people involved in dogfighting.

Just as The HSUS moved on from the Vick case and relentlessly pursued a comprehensive, multi-faceted attack on dogfighting, that’s what we need with soring.

The pitiful epilogue to Jackie McConnell’s training career ended yesterday, with his sentencing in federal court. Now, it is up to us to take the lessons of the McConnell investigation and arrest and translate it into something bigger. Our singular goal is to clean up the show world of Tennessee walking horse competitions, restore integrity to the sport, and put an end to all soring.

Soring is an archaic, barbaric, unnecessary practice. It’s also a crime, and in this case, the law has spoken. Other scofflaw trainers disregard this message at their peril, but also at the peril of their entire industry. The industry should be working with us to root out this corruption.

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