3 plead guilty in Chattanooga to horse abuse

photo Generator's Santana, being riden by Jackie McConnell, won the Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship in 1997 at Shelbyville's Walking Horse Celebration.

Some Tennessee walking horse faithful said Tuesday that recent criminal convictions could deter future horse abuse, even though three horse trainers who pleaded guilty to the crimes likely will face probation instead of jail.

"Nobody wants to come to this courthouse and sit in the hot seat. It's going to stop," said Nathanael Jackson on the steps of the federal courthouse in Chattanooga after the Tuesday hearing in which the trainers entered guilty pleas.

Jackson and his wife, Jennie Jackson, who train walking horses, have been outspoken critics of what they claim is industrywide horse abuse through a practice known as "soring."

Soring is an illegal practice sometimes involving mechanical and chemical damage to a horse's feet with such items as kerosene and metal bolts. The abusive methods alter the natural high-stepping gait of the horse to achieve the coveted "big lick" step, which often helps trainers win competitions.

In federal court, Jackie McConnell, 60, pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States alongside two of his employees -- John Mays, 47, and Joseph Abernathy, 29.

All three likely face probation for up to six months after a plea agreement and recommendations of the U.S. attorney's office.

Based on the charges and lack of criminal history among the defendants, they likely could receive probation even with a trial.

David Howard, a board member of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, called recent videos showing alleged horse soring by McConnell and others "horrifying."

"I've been in the business a long time and it shocked me. It's just totally unbelievable," he said.

The Celebration's inspection group SHOW -- Sound Horses Objective Inspections Winning Fairly -- gathered evidence that prosecutors here and in the Middle District of Tennessee used to obtain guilty pleas against others engaged in the practice, he said.

And, he said, SHOW had previously suspended McConnell for five years on a separate violation, a suspension McConnell was serving when he was investigated on the most recent charges.

U.S. Magistrate Bill Carter set Sept. 10 as the possible sentencing date for the three trainers. May's attorney, John McDougal, objected, requesting an earlier date since his client is in custody.

Mays is in federal custody for not reporting to his probation officer, one of his bond conditions.

McConnell's charge is considered a felony because he conspired to submit fraudulent paperwork. Because of his age, prosecutors have recommended probation. The guideline sentencing range for him, Abernathy and Mays is zero to six months.

Both Mays and Abernathy pleaded to the same charge of conspiracy as McConnell, but instead of the felony portion, they will face sentencing on a lesser offense categorized as a federal misdemeanor. The pair admitted they knowingly transported and exhibited sored horses.

The men were charged in a 52-count indictment that listed charges of horse inspection and related violations of the federal Horse Protection Act. Fellow McConnell employee Jeff Dockery, 56, also is charged with 52 counts.

Dockery filed paperwork with federal court to plea guilty Tuesday. His hearing date is scheduled for June 5.

The remaining counts against the men, which outline instances in which they transported or exhibited horses or submitted false paperwork, as in McConnell's case, will likely be dismissed when they are sentenced by U.S. District Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice.

Mattice can accept or reject the plea agreement before sentencing. If he sentences the men to any time greater than prosecutors' probation recommendation, they have the right to change their plea and request a trial.

"It's entirely up to Judge Mattice to accept the plea deal or not," said McConnell's attorney, Tom Greenholtz, adding that he hopes Mattice accepts the deal.

Prosecutors Steve Neff and Kent Anderson said in their indictment that the men sored horses to enter them into Tennessee Walking Horse competitions.

McConnell has trained horses for more than three decades, and some of the animals have been champions. He was named Trainer of the Year in 1986 by the national Walking Horse Trainers Association.

U.S. Department of Agriculture records show McConnell has been suspended at least nine times by Horse Industry Organizations between 1988 and 2009. Four of those violations were specific to horse soring.

As part of Tuesday's plea, McConnell agreed to forfeit his truck and trailer, which were used to transport the horses to shows in March, May and August 2011 in Shelbyville.

Last week, the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video footage taken by one of the association's agents which they claim shows McConnell and others soring horses. The footage was entered as evidence in the case.

SHOW-monitored violations caught at horse shows helped spark two other cases that resulted in guilty pleas and probation.

Last November, Chris Zahnd, of Trinity, Ala., was sentenced to two years probation for soring-related charges in the Middle District of Tennessee, according trt records.

Paul Blackburn, Christen Altman and Jeff Bradford received one year of probation for soring-related charges. Their co-defendant, Spotted Saddle Horse trainer Barney Davis, was sentenced to one year in prison for the charges and continuing to sore a horse while awaiting trial free on bond.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.