On the heels of a televised Humane Society of the United States video showing abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses, the federal government is moving toward stiffer, mandatory penalties for horse soring.
"This is a much-needed step to strengthen enforcement of the act, which prohibits the showing and transporting of horses whose legs have been 'sored' through the application of painful chemicals or other painful training methods," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
The rule was announced in teleconference on the same day a fourth Tennessee walking horse handler pleaded guilty in Chattanooga to a Horse Protection Act violation.
Soring causes the horses to perform an artificially high-stepping gait, known as the "big lick" for show competitions.
Under the new rule, horses found to be sored in a show inspection will be disqualified from that show. And the people responsible for the horse -- not just the trainers, but also horse owners, transporters and others associated with the horse -- could be suspended from participating in any show, exhibition, sale or auction for as much as a year on a first offense.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said repeat violators could be suspended for as much as three years on their third offense.
The USDA oversees inspections and enforcement of the 40-year-old Horse Protection Act.
USDA officials said the new rule will govern horse show-based organizations that are licensed by the USDA and certified by the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to supplement federal inspections.
The rule requires the supplemental inspectors of those organizations to assess the same level of federally mandated penalties in any horse show they are inspecting.
"[USDA] inspectors cannot be present at every show," said Dr. Chester Gipson, deputy administrator of USDA's animal care division. The new rule will establish a minimum penalty protocol.
"It will also help establish a level playing field," he said, adding that federal officials have noticed that shows where the horse industry organizations were not enforcing so much attracted many more competitors.
Officials said the new rule has been in the works for more than a year.
"In September 2010, USDA' office of inspector general found deficiencies in [the federal] in horse protection program. One of OIG's recommendations was that [we] develop and implement protocols to more consistently penalize individuals who have violated the Horse Protection Act," said USDA spokesman Dave Sacks.
USDA proposed the new rule and published it in the Federal Register on May 27, 2011.
Since then the agency has received 28,249 comments to the proposal, Gipson said.
Fourth guilty plea
Just before the new rule was announced, a fourth Tennessee Walking Horse handler pleaded guilty Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court to a charge of conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act.
Jeff Dockery, 56, was charged earlier this year along with Collierville, Tenn., horse trainer Jackie McConnell, 60; John Mays, 47; and Joseph Abernathy, 29, with conspiring to show abused horses. McConnell, Mays and Abernathy pleaded guilty last month.
Dockery, who cooperated with prosecutors, pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor count of conspiracy to show sored horses.
Prosecutors said Dockery allowed McConnell to name him as the trainer of horses entered in shows while McConnell was the real trainer. McConnell couldn't enter his name as the trainer because he was disqualified from showing because of past Horse Protection Act offenses.
Neither Dockery nor his family and attorney would comment Tuesday after the hearing in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge William Carter.
In the courtroom, Carter told Dockery he would be allowed to remain on bond at least for the next 30 days to participate in a drug rehabilitation program in Mississippi. At the completion of that rehabilitation, Carter will consider Dockery's request to remain on bond until his sentencing hearing on Sept. 10.
According to his sworn admission, Dockery has tested positive for cocaine use.
Prosecutors have recommended probation, as they have for McConnell.
In McConnell's case, guidelines call for up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing also is set Sept. 10.
Dane said Tuesday that while the charges and the new rule are positive signs, they are just a beginning.
"This is not enough; it's an interim, first step; a needed one under the current enforcement structure," Dane said.
"There are several more substantive changes needed in order to achieve full enforcement of the [Horse Protection Act] and end soring," he said.
Officials with the Tennessee Walking Horse Industry did not return calls for comment on the new rules Tuesday afternoon.
Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at email@example.com or 423-757-6346.