It's an open secret in the horse-training world. For decades, some show-horse trainers have been rubbing their mares' forelegs with caustic chemicals, so that the animals feel extraordinary pain, and walk with an exaggerated, elegant gait -- the kind that wins horse competitions.
And for almost all that time, Congress has thought this practice, known as "soring," was totally horrible -- making it illegal to show, sell, exhibit, or transport "sored" horses with the Horse Protection Act of 1970.
But 42 years later, "Soring-gate" has arrived. Renowned horse trainer Jackie McConnell (right, in photo) pleaded guilty last week to one count of conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act, reports DVM Newsmagazine.
The next day, the most prestigious walking horse championship, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, banned McConnell for life, knocked him out of its Hall of Fame, took down every photo and mention of him from the site, and prohibited any horse under his care from competing.
A Graphic Expose
Although McConnell had been accused of soring several times in the last three decades, he only found himself facing jail time this year. The Humane Society of the United States went undercover last year for seven weeks, and took video of him brutalizing his animals at his training site, Whitter Stables in Collierville, Tenn., and showing one horse lying on the ground, shaking and crying.
It was disturbingly graphic: McConnell and his employees rubbed his horses' legs and ankles with mustard oil, wrapped them in plastic so that the chemical would soak into their tissue, shackled them in heavy chains, then whipped, kicked, and beat the horses, and covered up the raw and hairless flesh using spray paint and felt pens.
Shown the footage, the Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General and the FBI investigated and, in March, leveled a 52-count charge against McConnell and three of his employees. Then when the video aired in May on ABC Nightline, Pepsi Co. pulled its sponsorship from the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
Torture For A Ribbon
Not everyone is happy that the video was shown on TV. After Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, and a board member of Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association, appeared on ABC, saying soring is "torture for the sake of a blue ribbon," another member of the association filed a complaint against him. The details of the complaint are unknown, reports The Tennessean.
"It suggests that there's still an attitude within the fraternity that anyone who breaks the code of silence on horse soring must be excommunicated," Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle told ABC News. "These people have it backwards, and they also need some lessons in crisis management."
And while Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville signed on to a bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, that would boost the enforcement budget of the Horse Protection Act from $500,000 to $5 million -- no other Tennessee lawmakers have expressed support.
Most people in the industry seem to know, and quietly accept, this practice as widespread. Eight of the last 10 Trainer of the Year award-winners have been suspended at least once for soring, according to a watchdog group, and reported in The Tennessean.
McConnell's first charge for soring was in 1979, when a USDA veterinarian called his horse the sorest horse in the show, with excruciatingly tender raised scars on its legs. And McConnell was already serving a five-year disqualification for soring when the Human Society of the United States came over to his barn to hang out.
'Every walking horse ... is sored'
Why would a man put his legacy, livelihood and ethics on the line to get his horses to lift their legs a little higher? "It's all about money," said Gordon Lawler, an Indiana veterinarian, longtime walking-horse owner, and board member of the National Walking Horse Association. Stud fees can run as high as $4,000, and that stallion could sire maybe 250 colts, totaling $1 million in moolah for the owner.
"An owner will tell a trainer, 'If you can't do it, I'll give my horse to another trainer,' " Lawler told The Tennessean.
McConnell will be sentenced in September, and if convicted could find himself in jail for up to five years, and with a quarter-million-dollar fine. He's struck a plea deal with prosecutors, however, which due to his age, health and sentencing guidelines, could save him from prison.
Trainers rarely get such hefty fines or jail time for soring, reports The Tennessean. Although in February, another Tennessee trainer, Barney Davis, was sentenced to a year in jail for soring. As part of his sentence, Davis also had to write an article or help produce an educational video about soring methods, and how investigators can better spot soring injuries.
"If you live long enough, everything cycles back," said Aubrey Harwell, who was hired by the industry in 1990 to conduct a yearlong investigation into suspicions that walking horse show judges were bribed. Her recommendations didn't get very far.
"For a lot of reasons, and I hope part of it was what I did, a lot of people really straightened out down there," she told The Tennessean. "Then there are always a few guys who are going to do it their way. That video is unreal. It is horrible. It is absolutely a blemish on an industry that has improved a lot."
Davis' view of the industry isn't so sunny. "Every walking horse that enters into a show is sored," he told the court after his conviction. "They've got to be sored to walk. There ain't no good way to put it, but that's how it is."
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