Tennessee walking horse group accepts soring penalties

photo Maisie McSwain, showing on the horse Victoria's Secret, takes a victory lap after winning first place in the Owner-Amateur Riders on Walking Mares or Geldings World Grand Championship last year at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn. This year's competition begins today.

NASHVILLE -- The organization that sanctions the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration has decided to adopt the minimum soring penalties proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Shelbyville-based SHOW HIO is a USDA-certified agency that show operators hire to inspect horses and punish trainers for signs of abuse such as soring, the act of intentionally injuring a horse's front legs to make it step higher.

The organization and at least two other parties sued the USDA last year over the penalties, arguing the new regulations violated horse trainers' rights to due process.

But SHOW issued a statement this week saying it now supports the penalties and won't appeal the decision of a federal judge, who last month ruled in favor of the government.

The federal Horse Protection Act prohibits transporting or showing a sored horse. Under the USDA regulations, a first-time offender could be suspended a minimum of two weeks up to a year, depending on the severity of the violation.

The penalties will be enforced at the annual celebration, which starts today in Shelbyville. A celebration representative did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Celebration CEO Mike Inman said in the news release issued by SHOW that the group had a short amount of time to make a decision before the event.

"We were put in a real time crunch with the judge's ruling taking a year and coming out less than a month before the celebration," he said.

Inman said anyone who entered horses by Aug. 6 and disagreed with the penalties could withdraw and get a refund.

In the release, SHOW said it supports penalties and has had the "harshest penalties in the industry" since its inception in 2009. The agency said it initially disagreed with the new rule "because we believed it would have a negative impact on the reform movement now taking hold in the industry."

A Collierville horse trainer who pleaded guilty to 12 counts of animal cruelty was sentenced last month to house arrest for a year and fined $25,000.

Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty in federal court last year after the Humane Society of the United States in 2011 secretly filmed video inside a training stable showing caustic substances being applied to Tennessee walking horses' legs and hooves, and the animals being beaten to make them stand.

Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society, views SHOW's decision as a victory in the effort to protect horses from abuse.

"It's a win in that the USDA had the authority to impose these requirements on the HIOs all along, as the judge upheld, and now one of the HIOs that resisted ... has now succumbed to the authority of the USDA," he said.