[Warning: Graphic video].
Jackie McConnell, a well-known walking horse trainer in Collierville, Tenn., and three other men: Joseph Abernathy, Jeff Dockery and John Mays, were arrested March 1 and charged with 31 counts of animal cruelty. The charges were leveled after the Humane Society concluded a two month undercover operation in 2011
that revealed the appalling abuse of several Tennessee Walker horses (TWH).
"In direct violation of the federal Horse Protection Act (HPA) and Tennessee State law," said the HSUS investigation report
, horses were beaten, kicked, whipped and sored. Soring, said the society:
Is the application of caustic chemicals such as mustard oil and heavy chains on a horse’s legs in order to intentionally inflict a maximum amount of pain so horses will lift their feet high off the ground in an unnatural gait to relieve the pain experienced as their injured legs hit the ground.
Despite being illegal for more than 40 years under the HPA of 1970
, the cruel practice of soring added HSUS, is persistent and widespread in the Tennessee Walking Horse show industry.
Soring is performed to produce an artificial gait action referred to as the 'Big Lick,' a gait rewarded highly in the arena by show judges. But it is a practice that is excruciatingly painful for the horse and leaves behind scarring, bleeding and tissue damage that is easy to detect on examination. Ironically added the society, despite being easily recognizable:
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.
Furthermore, said the investigation, horses were trained not to react to leg handling during the inspection process. Illegal drugs were used to numb the horses to the pain of having their legs handled or in mock-training sessions at McConnell's stables, horses were solidly beaten until they were desensitized to the process.
HSUS' video, shot over several weeks at Whitter Stables, showed how horses being trained by McConnell, were sored with mustard oil, croton oil, diesel fuel, heavy-duty hand cleaner and other caustic substances. Some of these were so toxic said the investigator, they had to be applied using an eye dropper.
After the application of these caustic agents, horses' legs were wrapped with plastic wrap to increase the burn. When a horse refused to cooperate during the application process they were beaten on the face with wooden handles. If an equine was too sore to stand, he was beaten, whipped and kicked until he was on his feet. One young filly said the report, was so affected by the treatment, McConnell asked if she was paralyzed.
The investigator also acknowledged that several owners watched their horses being sored and sent their horses to be trained by McConnell even though he was already on a 5-year disqualification, imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2006, for violations of the HPA.
The 'Big Lick' gait has been a desirable gait in TWH for decades. In the past, "Horses were trained for years with progressively heavier, taller shoes" that produced the gait said Horse Nation.com
. When it's performed, it "gives the appearance of a horse that is half-sitting while it glides around the ring, tail flagged and skimming the ground."
The website adds that during the 1950s, faster and easier methods were explored to achieve the Big Lick. Caustic agents were employed along with circular chains, called 'action devices' wrapped around the pasterns. "Logically, the practice makes sense," added Horse Nation, "The horse, subjected to pain whenever its front feet hit the ground, shifts its weight backwards and keeps its front legs in the air for as long as possible." Today it said, soring is "limited only by trainers’ creativity, and ruthlessness."
Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society said:
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.
McConnell’s history of HPA violations goes back to 1979 reported the society. Their investigation and video which was handed over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee and the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, resulted in a 52-count federal indictment filed on February 29, 2012 against McConnell, Abernathy, Dockery and Mays. Eight horses were seized from the property.
The defendants are expected to plead guilty under plea agreements on May 22, 2012.