published Friday, May 25th, 2012

Humane Society targets soring for horse shows

  • photo
    A frame captured from video of a Humane Society of the United States investigation show the measures taken to produce the exaggerated stride of Tennessee Walking Horses. In the video, horses are struck with clubs, shocked and have their hooves treated with chemicals and mechanical devices.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

What is soring

• Soring is the practice of using caustic chemicals to the ankles and hooves of Tennessee Walking Horses to induce their high-stepping gait known as "the Big Lick."

• Soring became illegal in 1970.

• From 1988 through 2010, horse show inspectors wrote nearly 10,000

• "tickets" for soring violations. More than a third were in Tennessee.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Humane Society of the United States is not ready to give up yet after its undercover investigation and video of horse abuse in the Tennessee walking horse industry.

After obtaining a noted horse trainer's indictment and guilty plea this week, the group now is asking state officials to investigate and prosecute the officials of horse shows and similar events.

"We hope the attention being drawn to this will lead to significant reforms and the elimination of soring. This has been going on way to long. And there are laws on the books. But if the law is not being enforced, then the law is meaningless," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society.

Tennessee law requires a show ringmaster to disqualify any horse found to be suffering from soring and forbid its participation in the show. Show inspectors look at the horses before each show to determine if signs of soring are present.

Show officials also are required to report, in writing, the names of the sored and disqualified horses, along with the names of their owners and exhibitors, to the district attorney general in the jurisdiction where the event was held.

But Dane said disqualified horses are competing and even winning.

An example is in documentation the Humane Society included with its letter to the Thursday to Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr.

In August 2009, at the 71st Walking Horse Celebration show, a horse named Moody Star was ticketed by an inspector for signs of soring -- which should have disqualified the horse.

But Moody Star, one of the horses in an undercover video the Humane Society made and used to prompt federal charges against noted Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell, was not disqualified. In fact, the horse won first place in one of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration show classes.

Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman for the state attorney general, acknowledged that he received the letter.

"These are extremely serious allegations, and we intend to review this for appropriate action," she said.

Failure to make the report is a misdemeanor, according to Tennessee law.

Dane said the Humane Society has met with district attorneys in Bedford County and other areas where walking horse shows are popular.

"We have met with some DAs in the past and made them aware of this law and ask if they ever received any names. We've asked them if they would enforce the law, and they said they would look into it," Dane said.

Officials with the Celebration could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon. A woman who identified herself only as a part-time receptionist refused to provide even an extension number for Celebration CEO Doyle Meadows.

"I don't know how you would get in touch with them," she said. "They're all over at the show."

The Humane Society's effort to rein in the walking horse industry made headlines early this year when the group's undercover investigation prompted the federal charges against McConnell. Their undercover videos shows him abusing a horse in his Collierville, Tenn., stables last year.

McConnell, 60, pleaded guilty in federal court in Chattanooga on Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States in relation to Horse Protection Act violations. He had been charged in a 52-count indictment. The charge he pleaded guilty to is a felony because he also conspired to submit fraudulent paperwork.

Despite walking horse industry claims otherwise, Dane said the practice of soring -- using caustic chemicals to the ankles and hooves of Tennessee Walking Horses to induce their high-stepping gait known as "the Big Lick" -- is pervasive.

"It would appear horse show managers are not upholding their statutory duties, and we strongly suspect the horse shows failed to report the information as required by Tennessee [law]," the letter states. "As a result, horses continued to be unlawfully sored and exhibited in horse shows across the state, and evidence of violations of the animal cruelty statute when unreported and uninvestigated by the proper authorities."

Soring became illegal in 1970.

For McConnell, prosecutors have recommended probation. Guidelines call for up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is set Sept. 10.

On Tuesday, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., sanctioned McConnell and suspended him for life. They banned him from the Celebration grounds and agreed to remove his name from the list of Celebration Hall of Fame inductees.

"Any picture, plaque, image or other mention of his name from Hall of Fame data will be permanently removed from this day forward and his name will be forever erased from Hall of Fame rolls," according to a statement on the Celebration's website.

After McConnell's plea, David Howard, a Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration board member and the longtime publisher of the industry's largest trade magazine, said the video of McConnell and the horses "shocked me."

But it wasn't the first time McConnell had been accused.

According to USDA records compiled by the Friends of Sound Horses, McConnell has been suspended 11 times from 1988 through 2010.

The Celebration's inspection group SHOW -- Sound Horses Objective Inspections Winning Fairly -- had suspended McConnell for five years on a separate violation, and he was still under that suspension when the undercover videos were made.

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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