Prosecutors claim that four men burned horses' legs with chemicals, struck the animals in the head, used numbing agents to mask painful reactions during inspections and altered documents to avoid being caught by inspectors at show horse competitions.
On Friday, a federal grand jury indicted four men for charges related to horse soring two days after a federal judge in Chattanooga sentenced three others to the first convictions of the crime in 20 years.
Soring is a method of abuse that can include bolts, chains and corrosive chemicals used on horses hooves, making it so painful to walk the animal is forced to create the high step prized in walking horse competitions. The practice can ultimately cripple horses.
Three Collierville, Tenn., men - Jackie McConnell, 60, Jeff Dockery, 54, John Mays, 50, and Olive Branch, Miss., resident Joseph R. Abernathy, 30, face charges of conspiracy, inspection violations and related charges in a 52-count federal indictment.
If convicted, the men face three years in prison for each felony charge and up to one year for each misdemeanor, according to a U.S. Attorney's Office news release.
The documents, unsealed Thursday, allege that between 2006 and September 2011, the men violated the Horse Protection Act by transporting and entering "sored" horses in walking horse competitions and falsifying paperwork to elude detection by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice sentenced Barney Davis and two other co-defendants after they pleaded guilty to violating the Horse Protection Act. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said in a news release that those were the first convictions under the Horse Protection Act in 20 years.
Davis received one year in prison, but has already served eight months of that term.
During the Monday hearing, Davis alleged that soring is a widespread practice common in show horse competitions to achieve an exaggerated gait known as the "big lick."
Dozens of Tennessee Walking Horse enthusiasts contacted the Times Free Press following the story to dispute Davis' claims. Through emails and phone messages, the walking horse devotees said the abusive practice is shameful and abhorrent to the majority of trainers, exhibitionists, owners and breeders.
Dr. Stephen Mullins, a veterinarian and president of Sound Horse-Honest Judging-Objective Inspections-Winning-Fairly, said he inspects horses at walking horse shows. Abuses are rare and the inspection process is an intense one, he said.
"They [trainers] don't like me when I come to the show," Mullins said. "We're actively inspecting those horses; the USDA is actively inspecting those horses."
Mullins said horses inspected by his group, known as SHOW, have had a 97 percent compliance rate over the last three years.
"Have we had problems in the walking horse industry? Absolutely," he said. "Are we addressing those problems? Absolutely."