published Monday, December 10th, 2012

Tennessee walking horse reform push continues

A lay inspector goes over a horse in the inspection area at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., in August.
A lay inspector goes over a horse in the inspection area at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., in August.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

The battle is still going on to reform the Tennessee walking horse industry.

The Humane Society of the United States called last week for 11 Tennessee district attorneys to acquire and test all "foreign substance swab samples" collected from Tennessee walking show horses during 2012 and to prosecute violations under state animal cruelty laws.

"We're hopeful with all public attention that soring walking horses and the Jackie McConnell case has generated, that these DAs will want to set an example and deterrent in their communities," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society.

The action is the newest wrinkle in the sparring over the training of Tennessee's iconic high-stepping horses.

Soring is the use of chemicals and objects to make a walking horse's feet hurt so the animal will lift them higher in an exaggeration of its natural gait.

Trainer Jackie McConnell, of Collierville, Tenn., was caught on a hidden camera beating and helping to sore horses at his stable. The videos, shot by an undercover operative with the Humane Society, prompted a 52-count federal indictment early this year against McConnell and several other horse trainers.

McConnell and the others pleaded guilty. McConnell was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $75,000.

The video images were shown on prime-time television, setting off a wave of public outrage.

Now the Humane Society wants state cases brought against horse trainers and handlers who sore horses.

In letters dated Dec. 6, the group asked DAs handling prosecutions in 44 counties to request, or subpoena if necessary, the swabs U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Walking Horse Trainers Association made at horse shows this fall and the results of the tests.

The swabbing by the Walking Horse Trainers Association was touted as part of the industry's effort to demonstrate its commitment to reform.

Jamie Hankins, outgoing president and current board member of the Walking Horse Trainers Association, said he hadn't yet seen the letter.

Releasing the results to a requesting district attorney would be up to attorneys and the administrator of the swabbing initiative, Hankins said.

USDA officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

District Attorney Robert Carter, who handles cases in Bedford County where the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is held in Shelbyville, Tenn., did not return a call for comment.

But at least one district attorney said he will look into the question.

Russell Johnson, who prosecutes cases in Meigs, Roane, Loudon and Morgan counties, said his office is handling a number of horse malnutrition cases. He said he is turning the letter over to an assistant "who has a heart for these cases."

The McConnell criminal case made national news and set off a year of upheaval in the Tennessee walking horse industry.

Riding the wave of public outrage, the USDA adopted tougher minimum penalties for exhibitors and owners of walking horses found to be sored with chemicals or objects to exaggerate their gait.

The new rules prompted lawsuits and USDA decertifications of horse groups that act as lay show inspectors. Those legal actions are still playing out.

At the federal level, amendments have been introduced to toughen the 40-year-old Horse Protection Act to make soring a federal felony. It already is a felony under state law.

Aside from the legal ramifications, the attention hurt the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, held each August in Shelbyville.

The stands were half empty at most of the Celebration's 11-day events.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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