Trainer likely to get probation after guilty plea
A prominent trainer in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry pleaded guilty May 22 to a felony conviction for charges that he violated the Horse Protection Act. Jackie McConnell, 60, along with three of his stable hands who pleaded guilty to related charges, were part of a criminal case involving the soring of horses.
Prosecutors say the men applied prohibited substances, such as mustard oil, to the pastern area of Tennessee Walking Horses to “sore” them so as to produce an exaggerated gait prized by show judges. The conspiracy is alleged to have begun in 2006 and continued through September 2011. The allegations say the violations occurred at the annual National Walking Horse Trainers Show in March 2011, the Spring Fun Show in May 2011, and the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in August and September 2011, all held in Shelbyville, Tenn.
McConnell had racked up more than a dozen suspensions by the Department of Agriculture since 1979 for repeatedly violating the HPA. Because of similar violations, he was on a five-year suspension from competitions until October 2011.
Named Trainer of the Year by the Walking Horse Trainers Association in 1986, McConnell won the Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship in 1997. But in the wake of his guilty plea, McConnell was suspended for life and kicked out of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Hall of Fame on May 23.
Part of the evidence used against McConnell and the others came from video footage taken by a Humane Society of the United States investigator during a seven-week period in spring 2011 at McConnell’s farm in Collierville, Tenn.
The undercover recordings not only show the men applying caustic chemicals to the horses’ ankles, but also show them stewarding horses. Stewarding is the term for teaching horses not to flinch when their feet and legs are palpated. The horses were beaten with wooden sticks and subjected to a cattle prod for this purpose. The video can be seen at www.youtube.com/hsus
McConnell, as well as Jeff Dockery, 54, John Mays, 50, and Joseph Abernathy, 29, were arrested Feb. 29 and charged in a 52-count federal indictment with violations of the HPA by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Under a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, McConnell will likely avoid prison time. His sentence of probation, which must be approved by a federal judge, is scheduled for Sept. 10. The three other men pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges related to the case and will likely avoid jail time.
McConnell’s case is the third criminal indictment brought against individuals for violating the HPA in 20 years. All three cases have occurred since 2010 (see JAVMA, March 15, 2012, page 632).
His case made national news when the HSUS footage was aired as part of an investigative piece on ABC’s Nightline May 16. The day after, Pepsi dropped its sponsorship of the National Celebration. Dr. Kurt Schrader, an Oregon veterinarian and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, gave a floor speech against the practice of soring on May 17. The AVMA Animal Welfare and Governmental Relations divisions’ staff assisted in putting together his speech. Video of Rep. Schrader’s remarks can be viewed at www.youtube.com/RepKurtSchrader
McConnell, Dockery, and Mays still face 31 counts of animal cruelty under Tennessee state statues. The case is pending.
On May 21, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that creates felony penalties for aggravated cruelty to livestock, including seriously injuring a horse or other animal with acid or chemicals “without justifiable or lawful purpose.” Soring and other forms of animal cruelty had been punished as misdemeanors under state law. Officials in the legislature’s legal office have said the new bill probably would apply to soring, although the practice is not explicitly mentioned in the legislation.