Indictment shines light on abuse allegations in Tennessee walking horse industry

photo Nathanael Jackson speak about alternatives to horse soring that give Tennessee Walking Horses their signature gait as his prize winning mare "Count It All Joy" peeks her head out of the stall at the Walkin on Ranch in Cookeville, Tenn., on May 14, 2012.

Robertson concedes the 33rd District

Democratic representative nominee Mark Robertson conceded his race with Warwick Sabin around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night, but hopes that he and Sabin can work together while Sabin is in the legislature.

Democratic representative nominee Mark Robertson conceded his race with Warwick Sabin around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night, but hopes that he and Sabin can work together while Sabin is in the legislature.

TENNESSEE WALKING HORSE HISTORYIn the mid- to late 1800s, farmers in the central basin of Tennessee developed, through selective breeding, a superior strain of saddle horse that was both an effective utility horse and a smooth-gaited mount.They crossbred horses that were readily available throughout the region - Standardbreds, Morgans, American and English Thoroughbreds, American Saddle Horses, and Canadian and Narragansett Pacers. It was a standardbred stallion named Allan that laid the foundation for what became the first breed of horse to bear a state name - the Tennessee Walking Horse.Though he possessed quality racing trotter bloodlines, Allan's natural tendency was to pace. Regardless of the type of mare mated to him, the resulting offspring almost always performed an easy gliding gait capable of carrying a rider effortlessly across the farms and rural roads of middle Tennessee.In 1939, the first Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration took place in Shelbyville, Tenn., and it remains today the breeder's largest showcase and its world championship show. In terms of entries and spectators, the 11-day event is considered the largest such show in the world, drawing 250,000 spectators and more than 3,000 horses annually. The Tennessee Walking Horse became an officially recognized breed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1950.Source:

Federal criminal charges against a top trainer in the multimillion-dollar Tennessee walking horse industry have some asking whether current methods to halt abusive practices of "horse soring" are effective or if the entire sport needs an overhaul.

Jackie McConnell, 60, walked up the steps into Chattanooga federal court on Thursday, carrying with him decades of walking horse experience and the weight of a 52-count federal indictment that details allegations of horse abuse in the industry's largest shows.

"I think it is a huge wake-up call for the industry. [McConnell] is a key player," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

Recent charges against McConnell and others, including the first convictions in two decades under the U.S. Horse Protection Act, have brought increased federal scrutiny to an industry in which some say abuse is rampant. Others contend that the practices are rare and that self-policing is cleaning up the horse shows.

"I think that everybody is surprised," said Dr. Stephen Mullins, a veterinarian and head of Sound Horses-Honest Judging-Objective Inspections-Winning Fairly, a horse industry organization that conducts inspections at sanctioned shows.

"Everybody that I've talked to said, 'Hey, he has to have his day in court, and we'll see if he's guilty,'" Mullins said.

Among other charges, McConnell and three other defendants are accused of soring, in which some trainers use chains, bolts, acid, kerosene and other techniques to make a walking horse's feet (do not use the word hoof or hooves) and legs so tender, they're forced to change their gait. The pain causes them to lift their front feet higher and land with less force, exaggerating the high step that's prized in walking horse competitions.

Prestige and money associated with the competitions have grown since their 1939 inception and the higher the step, or "big lick," the more likely the horse would take home the title of world grand champion, leading to lucrative prices for the animal's offspring.

The methods were declared illegal in 1970 when a bill written by then-U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, D-Md., became law. Yet the indictments indicate that soring persists. Just how pervasive is an often debated point among walking horse enthusiasts.

The breed and its associated shows, especially the premier Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, dominate the horse world of Middle Tennessee. The annual event draws more than 2,000 horse entries and an estimated $50 million in economic impact to the area, according to a recent study.

But critics such as Nathanael and Jennie Jackson, of Cookeville, Tenn., say the walking horse industry needs to return to its roots to save the breed's reputation.

Soring is "unnatural. I say it's unholy," Nathanael Jackson said. "We say stop it."


Jennie Jackson has seen the dark side of walking horse training. For her first few years in the industry, when she competed in the late 1970s while living in California, she sored horses, as did nearly all of her competitors, she said.

She knows how it's done, how it's hidden and why people hurt horses to win ribbons.

"It's very addictive," she said. "It's a quick fix, and it works."

The walking horse has a natural gait through breeding that produces a smooth forward flick of the hoof when the animal moves. Through proper training, usually requiring almost daily sessions lasting hours over the course of years, trainers can teach the horse to lengthen that stride to create a beautifully controlled movement not seen naturally in any other breed of horse.

Those who sore horses often take burning chemicals such as kerosene or mustard oil and rub them into the pastern, or fleshy part of the horse's foot. The trainer then wraps cellophane around the area, sealing in the chemical to tenderize the spot.

Most walking horses in shows wear pads, three- to four-inch flats placed beneath their hooves. Strapped across the front of the hoof is a chain, called an "action device." These items are legal and commonly used.

But when soring, a trainer will ensure the chain strikes the tenderized spot, inducing pain and causing the horse to high-step.

Mullins said in a phone interview Friday that the chain across the horse's foot is simply extra weight that induces the horse to lift its foot and foreleg higher.

But critics such as the Jacksons claim that the "big lick" step is not possible without soring.

"If you ever see an action device on a horse, a chain or a roller, [trainers] can tell you all day long till the cows come home, 'My horse is not sored' - it's a lie," Nathanael Jackson said. "There's no way in the world you get that without soring."

Mullins and others say the step is possible through breeding and training and the use of legal pads and chains. Whether the pads cause pain is a hotly debated topic in horse training circles.

"Most important is the genetics have caught up with the horse," Mullins said. "The horses are able to do a lot toward the big lick on their own."

Veterinarians with the U.S. Department of Agriculture - the agency that enforces the Horse Protection Act - found violations of the act in 90 percent of padded horses but only 10 percent of nonpadded horses in agency-inspected shows from 2008 to 2010. The agency attends between 7 and 10 percent of all Tennessee walking horse shows annually.

Mullins inspects horses according to USDA's guidelines for designated qualified persons, or sanctioned inspectors, at horse shows. These people are often trainers themselves who have attended agency sessions and are certified to inspect the horses for violations, and cite the trainer if they find evidence of soring or other prohibited methods.

One of the industry's organizations - which number at least 13 - can then impose suspensions on the trainers for as short as a few days to as long as a lifetime.

Mullins admits there are problems with soring within the walking horse community, but he said there have been improvements, and eliminating some controversial methods may cause unforeseen problems. His organization, SHOW, has documented an estimated 600 "underground" or "backyard" shows that are unaffiliated and have no monitoring to prevent horse abuse.

"Unless you keep the horse under the spotlight at affiliated shows, it's going to continue," Mullins said. "A lot of trainers, a lot of great owners, are stepping up and doing the absolute right thing. Let's don't knock those people off and send it all to the back 40, because that's where the horse is really going to get in trouble."

But Dane finds little merit in that argument.

The Humane Society official said not eliminating the harmful practices in show horse circles for fear that they would "go underground" is like saying dogfighting or cockfighting should remain legal so the activities can be better monitored.

Some of the damage caused by soring is minor and a horse can recover with rest and training. More severe damage can cause a horse to founder and later cripple the animal. Some experts said the mental trauma was almost worse and harder to untrain.

The Jacksons got a rare side-by-side comparison of padded and nonpadded - or flat-shod - walking horses at the industry's premiere event, the Celebration, in 1999. Their then-15-year-old daughter, Natalie, rode the family's stallion, Champagne Watchout, unpadded against padded walking horses.

The video, which Nathanael has many copies of and has posted on their "Walkin On Ranch" website, includes media accounts of his fight to have the horse in the competition because of industry opposition at having a non-padded horse compete with a padded horse as well as video footage of the event.

Champagne did not finish in the top 10 of the padded class.

On Wednesday, Jennie Jackson walked Champagne out of the family's four-stall barn, mounted him and rode in small circles, warming up the animal. After a little coaxing, Champagne transitioned from a free walk to other gaits.

The walking horse has at least 13 gaits, she said, and described the ideal walk as midway between a pace and a trot. All horses have a natural gait preference that is either more of a pace or a trot, she said.

In a trot, the rider feels an up-and-down motion, she explained. In a pace the feeling is more side to side, while the walk is forward-back.

The trainer's job is to use their legs, reins, body commands and the unspoken communication built through time in the saddle to command the horse to the correct gait at the correct time, she said.


McConnell's isn't the only case involving alleged soring that has been in the spotlight of late.

In February, Barney Davis, a Shelbyville trainer for a spotted saddle horse, another breed that has a distinctive gait, was the last of four co-defendants to be sentenced for federal charges related to horse soring. Davis, 39, received one year in prison, though he had served most of the time while awaiting trial.

His co-defendants - Christen Altman, 26, and Paul Blackburn, 35, both of Shelbyville, and Jeffery Bradford, 33, of Lewisburg, Tenn. - were sentenced to probation, fines and required to participate in anti-soring education through the USDA.

McConnell, 60, of Collierville, and his co-defendants - Jeff Dockery, 56, and John Mays, 47, both also of Collierville, and Olive Branch, Miss., resident Joseph R. Abernathy, 29 - face charges of conspiracy, inspection violations and other charges related to horse soring.

If convicted, the men face up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge. The act of horse soring is a misdemeanor under federal law, resulting in up to one year in prison. The conspiracy charges and fraud charge related to false paperwork are felonies that carry multiyear sentencing maximums.

McConnell has a bond hearing on March 23, and all four are set for a trial May 22.

McConnell, named the 1986 "Trainer of the Year" by the national Walking Horse Trainers Association, has been suspended at least nine times by two organizations for horse show violations since 1988, according to the USDA.

The indictment against McConnell states that he coached his co-defendants in soring methods by phone while they entered horses in shows such as the Tennessee Walking National Celebration in 2011 and used soring methods, falsified paperwork and beat horses in the head to train them not to react to pain in their feet during inspections.

With much debate between organizations and weakly enforced rules, McConnell's case and others like it could prove a catalyst in the Tennessee walking horse world.

Jennie Jackson said when her family moved from California to Tennessee in 2002, she hoped that one day her grandchildren would see the end of soring, pads and chains. Criminal charges against prominent people in the industry coupled with a turn in public sentiment against soring she's seen over the years may speed up that dream, she said.

"I think I'm going to see it in my lifetime," she said. "That is a huge improvement there because I never thought that would happen, ever."