In the wake of The Humane Society of the United States’ undercover investigation into the shocking abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses, notorious trainer Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty today to a felony conviction for charges related to conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act. Two of McConnell’s associates also pleaded guilty to related charges.
The HSUS expresses its thanks to U.S. Attorney William C. “Bill” Killian and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven S. Neff and M. Kent Anderson for pursuing criminal charges for violations of the HPA, and congratulates them on securing guilty pleas, including McConnell’s guilty plea to the charge of felony conspiracy—the most serious of the 52 counts in the federal indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in February. Federal charges are still pending against a fourth individual charged in the case. McConnell and two others also face 31 counts of violating Tennessee’s state animal cruelty statute in a separate matter that is still pending.
“Although the Horse Protection Act has been in place for more than 40 years, violators have seldom been prosecuted,” said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for The HSUS. “The McConnell case, and the conviction and imprisonment earlier this year of Barney Davis—another Tennessee horse trainer—send a clear message to anyone who sores a gaited show horse that soring is a federal crime, and the government will prosecute violators. We thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General, and Federal Bureau of Investigation for their work in these cases, and urge the federal government to continue to make enforcement of the Horse Protection Act a top priority.”
For seven weeks in 2011, The HSUS conducted an undercover investigation in McConnell’s Whitter Stables, showing 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. 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 nation was shocked when this inexcusable cruelty was released to the public on ABC’s Nightline last week.
The HSUS investigator documented McConnell soring Moody Star, the winner of the 2010 Celebration Reserve World Grand Champion owned by Wilsene Moody. Some in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry deny that soring is still a pervasive part of the training process used to produce the “Big Lick” – the gait frequently accomplished by mechanical or chemical soring – that wins ribbons and titles at breed competitions. But at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, 52 of the 52 horses randomly chosen by the USDA tested positive for prohibited foreign substances applied to their pasterns. Foreign substance violation rates (for soring, numbing, or masking agents) at all USDA-inspected shows were 86 percent in 2010 and 97.6 percent in 2011, an indication that soring is widespread in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. At the time of The HSUS’s investigation, McConnell was under a five-year federal disqualification from participating in horse shows – yet continued to train horses and get them into the show ring.
The HSUS has long been dedicated to ending this inhumane practice, and in the wake of this investigation, will be doing even more to root out and expose the terrible abuses of show horses. Significant reforms to the HPA are needed and we will be working with Congress to strengthen the law, toughen the penalties, and provide adequate funding to give USDA the tools it needs to stamp out this cruel practice once and for all.
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