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July 10, 2013

A Reckoning of Sorts for Disgraced Walking Horse Trainer

HSUS undercover investigations have triggered a number of milestones in animal protection over the years – the first criminal prosecution of slaughterhouse workers, the largest meat recall in U.S. history, major corporate policy changes on gestation crates, shutdowns of rogue slaughter plants and stronger federal rules on handling of downer cattle and calves, the pledge that the vast majority of chimps in labs will be transferred to sanctuaries, the biggest court judgment ever entered for animal abuse, and many other major reforms.

Yesterday, the Hon. Circuit Judge Weber McCraw in Tennessee added to that list by handing down the first ever complete ban on horse ownership in the Tennessee walking horse industry. The case arose out of The HSUS’ undercover investigation of Jackie McConnell – the Hall of Fame trainer of Tennessee walking horses – who in 2011 was captured on tape intentionally injuring the animals under his charge in order to get them to step higher and win ribbons at horse shows. The case triggered a national outcry, a federal prosecution of McConnell and his associates, a stiffening of Tennessee’s cruelty laws, the introduction of legislation to overhaul the federal Horse Protection Act, and the state cruelty case which concluded yesterday.

Soring
Chad Sisneros/The HSUS

McConnell pled guilty to 12 charges of soring and torturing horses in violation of Tennessee’s animal cruelty statute. He received a sentence of one year of house arrest followed by four years of supervised probation, a $25,000 fine (on top of the $75,000 fine and three years’ probation he’d already gotten in the federal case against him), and he is prohibited from owning and training horses for 20 years – essentially a lifetime ban for the 62-year-old disgraced trainer. Co-defendants Jeff Dockery and John Mays pled guilty to three and four counts of animal cruelty, respectively, and will be subject to supervised probation.

For decades, bad actors in the walking horse industry have totally ignored state and federal prohibitions on horse soring – the cruel practice of abusing horses’ feet and legs to achieve an unnatural and painful high step in the show ring. Trainers and owners have repeatedly been cited for violations, and treated them like traffic tickets – as merely the cost of doing a lucrative business.

While I wish McConnell had been slapped with a long-term jail sentence – especially since he had already been cited two dozen times for illegal soring prior to our investigation – the ban on horse ownership for him is an incremental advance for us and our cause. The HSUS’ investigation and the resulting state and federal prosecutions have sent a signal to every Tennessee walking horse trainer who sores horses that there’s no longer a free pass for this abuse. There’s no immunity for those who unlawfully torture horses to win ribbons – whether they’re the owners or the trainers. Walking horse show attendance is down due to the scandal, and the industry has devolved into infighting between holdouts insisting there is no cruelty problem in their ranks and those recognizing that their industry operates in an entirely different social and law enforcement environment today.

We applaud the efforts of Tennessee District Attorney General D. Michael Dunavant and Assistant District Attorney General Mark E. Davidson who vigorously prosecuted this case, and we thank them on behalf of the horses rescued from McConnell’s barn and all the other horses who suffered through their time in that nightmarish environment. We’re also grateful for the hard work and assistance provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General and APHIS Animal Care personnel. Their decisive action in this case has set an important example for law enforcement in any area where soring takes place.

The HSUS is committed to ending soring and is strongly advocating legislation introduced by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (H.R. 1518), which would amend the Horse Protection Act to end the industry’s failed system of self-policing, ban the use of devices implicated in the practice of soring, strengthen penalties, and make other reforms needed to finally end this torture. Please call your representative in the U.S. Congress and urge him or her to cosponsor H.R. 1518, to enable stronger prosecutions against trainers like McConnell and to create a horse show environment that’s safe for horses and horse-lovers.

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