Eight of the last 10 winners of the Trainer of the Year award from the Walking Horse Trainers' Association have been suspended for soring at least once, according to data compiled by an industry watchdog group.
One of the winners, Charlie Green, racked up the most violations of the Horse Protection Act, with 22 -- for everything from one-foot and two-foot soring to scarring on a horse's legs, a possible indication of previous soring -- according to a review by The Tennessean of a database maintained by Friends of Sound Horses. Green declined to comment on his record.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with enforcing the federal Horse Protection Act, has online records going back to 2010, which confirm that four of the 10 Trainers of the Year have violations in their recent past. The advocates' database goes back more than two decades.
Soring is the practice of pouring caustic chemicals, cutting or otherwise abusing a horse's hooves and lower front legs to induce the high step that wins Tennessee walking horse competitions. The trainers' violations prove that it remains far too prevalent in the industry and isn't limited to a few offenders, said Lori Northup, president of Friends of Sound Horses, a group formed more than a decade ago to promote the humane treatment and training of gaited horses.
Keith Dane, equine protection director of the Humane Society of the United States, said soring is far from isolated. The Humane Society shot an undercover video detailing soring and other abuses by high-profile trainer Jackie McConnell and three others in a West Tennessee barn.
"We maintain this is not an isolated incident," Dane said. "This isn't one bad apple. This is representative of what is going on in a lot of the industry."
The databases are maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Friends of Sound Horses, which uses USDA records and those reported by USDA-certified horse industry organizations, which help enforce the Horse Protection Act for the federal government.
"Whether this involves the top tier of the walking horse industry or the bottom rung is not the issue for us," department spokesman David Sacks said Tuesday. "At USDA, one sore horse is one too many, so we will continue to work with the industry and do all we can to end the inhumane practice of horse soring on all levels."
Four of the seven past winners with soring violations in their past, including a two-time winner, could not be reached for comment. Those who did respond denied soring horses and said the practice is not common in the industry.
From 2002 to 2011, the winners of the last 10 Trainer of the Year awards had 71 total violations of the Horse Protection Act, according to the database maintained by Friends of Sound Horses. Twenty-six of the violations were for either one-foot or two-foot soring.
Most of the violations were issued by horse industry organizations and not the USDA.
The Tennessean made several attempts Tuesday to contact all seven trainers who had specific soring violations, but only three returned calls. One trainer, Jimmy McConnell -- the brother of Jackie McConnell -- won the award twice.
Jeff Green, of Shelbyville, the 2008 Trainer of the Year, denied soring horses. According to the records, he has had six suspensions since 1998, including two for one-foot soring.
"We don't do that"
Link Webb, the 2005 winner, has had six suspensions since 2002, including three for one-foot soring. The separate USDA database lists nine violations for Webb since 2010, including three for one-foot soring and two for two-foot soring.
Webb said he had sored horses in the past but does not currently do so.
None of the trainers who responded said soring was common in the Tennessee walking horse industry.
"I don't think it's very common at all because we don't do that anymore," said Rodney Dick, the 2001 Trainer of the Year, who also has past violations. "Now in the past, I can't say that. But I know, as of now, we don't do that anymore."
Tennessee walking horses have a naturally high gait. But over the years, some trainers figured out they could achieve a higher, more accentuated walk by soring the horses' hooves and lower legs.
Controversy is old
Walking horse industry groups have pledged to crack down on soring, particularly after well-publicized cases, in each decade since the Horse Protection Act was passed in 1970. Those leading the industry condemn the practice and say it is not as widespread as critics believe.
The industry has returned to the spotlight since the Humane Society's undercover video first aired on ABC News' "Nightline" this month. The video led to a 52-count federal indictment against Jackie McConnell and three others. McConnell pleaded guilty to count 1 of the indictment -- felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act -- and has agreed to cooperate with authorities. His plea agreement with prosecutors calls for a sentence of probation.
Winky Groover, a trainer and spokesman for the Walking Horse Trainers' Association, said Tuesday that the industry is making improvements.
Trainers of the Year are selected by a vote of the association's members, Groover said.
He said the inspection process remains far too subjective, particularly on scar rule and one-foot soring violations. For instance, a horse might slam its foot against the trailer or stable stall and get cited for a one-foot soring violation.
According to USDA records, one-foot soring violations are far more common than citations for two-foot soring.
If a more objective inspection process is established, Groover said, he would favor the association not allowing the Trainer of the Year award to go to someone with recent violations.
Currently, the USDA makes it to only a small number of the more than 450 horse shows each year. The department relies on horse industry organizations to conduct inspections and issue violations of the Horse Protection Act, which makes it illegal to transport or show a sored horse.
Groover said the winners of the Trainer of the Year award often show far more horses than other trainers, meaning they go through more inspections.
He said people will argue that the industry has a widespread problem with soring because its top trainers have past violations. But Groover said the industry is evolving.
"We have had problems in the past. We will continue to have some people who are not going to toe the line," he said. "In any sport -- really in anything -- someone is going to try and get an edge if they can."
Just because somebody has a record doesn't mean they aren't doing things correctly now, Groover said.
"I personally have a past record, and I am not proud of it," he said.
According to the Friends of Sound Horses' database, he has had 15 violations since 2001. The most recent soring violation occurred in 2009, although he was cited for a scar rule violation in 2011.
"I have made steps to change my training techniques," Groover said. "I feel like I train horses totally humane and totally compliant. We do, like everybody, have a past. All we can do is ask forgiveness and move on."
Contact Duane W. Gang at 615-726-5982 or firstname.lastname@example.org.