As a famed Tennessee walking horse trainer begins his federal probation and prepares to defend himself against 17 state misdemeanor charges related to soring, a new battle line is forming for possible prosecutions of horse owners.
For now, that fight seems to be unfolding around eight horses seized March 1 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Jackie McConnell's stable near Collierville, Tenn., and now sequestered by the Humane Society of the United States.
The state cases - all charging cruelty to animals - have been taken by 25th Judicial District Attorney Mike Dunavant.
Affidavits in the case detail dozens of instances of abuse suffered by seven horses in McConnell's care, some of which were among the eight seized. Those instances include:
• From March through May 2011, an undercover operative saw McConnell or his stablehands apply soring substances to horses' legs on more than a dozen occasions - at least twice while owners watched.
• McConnell was observed beating a horse on the head with a large stick.
• McConnell twice used a "hot shot" cattle prod on a walking horse referred to as a "field colt" while a stablehand rode him.
McConnell and two stablehands, John Mays and Jeff Dockery, face 17 counts of animal cruelty involving different types of abuse including soring and stewarding. Soring is the use of caustic chemicals and chains on the horses' legs and feet to induce their exaggerated "big lick" gait. Stewarding is training the animals not to show pain.
The new charges, Dunavant said, allow officials to investigate how much owners knew and whether they participated in the alleged soring of their horses.
Dunavant also said state law provides that a court may prohibit people convicted of animal cruelty "from custody, possession, or ownership of any animals in the future."
Authorities say the seized horses still are in Tennessee, but they are in the custody of the Humane Society.
Keith Dane, the society's equine director, said the horses are "being well cared for pending the outcome of the cases."
According to affidavits signed by USDA investigator Julie McMillan, the horses have not always been so safe.
On five different days an undercover operative watched as McConnell oversaw his workers putting substances on a horse named Master Streaker. On one occasion, the horse's owner also watched, according to the affidavit.
In late spring 2011, Mays told the operative that "croton" had been applied to the pasterns of Master Streaker. The operative saw that the horse "exhibited observable signs of physical pain."
Later the same day, Master Streaker was seen "standing in her stall, repetitively picking up her feet and standing in the 'bucket stance,' which is indicative of soring. Later in the day Master Streaker was seen lying down in her stall on her side with her legs stretched back."
The following day, "the undercover operative overheard a conversation between John Mays and Jackie McConnell, where Mays tells McConnell that when he went to get Master Streaker from her stall, she would not move. McConnell asks Mays if she is 'paralyzed' and Mays says 'yes.' John Mays tells the undercover operative that Master Streaker is 'sore' from the 'croton' and that 'she ain't used to it yet,'" according to an affidavit.
Moving cases forward
On Friday, Dane applauded the state's interest in the owners of the seized horses.
"We don't have the authority to charge, of course, but we do believe that some of the owners of the horses that were in the barn when this investigation went on ... did have culpability," Dane said.
He said some of their horses previously had been ticketed for soring while being trained by McConnell.
"That should tend to suggest that they had known he was soring horses in the past, but they continued to leave their horses in his training and care," Dane said.
Last week in federal court here, McConnell was sentenced to three years' probation, fined $75,000 and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service for the USDA.
Dane said it's unclear what eventually will happen to the seized horses. The owners of at least one horse have sued the Humane Society, but Dane said he doesn't know the details of the suit.
Authorities say each horse is valued at $50,000 to $75,000.
Dunavant said the federal convictions against McConnell, Mays and Dockery will not increase any future state penalties against them if they are found guilty on the state charges.
A state Class A misdemeanor conviction can draw up to 11 months and 29 days in Tennessee. But McConnell, with no prior criminal record related to the current charges, "is statutorily presumed to be a qualified candidate for a suspended sentence and probation," Dunavant said.
Soring now is a felony in Tennessee, but when these charges were brought, it was a misdemeanor, according to authorities.