I was in Nashville when the front page of the Tennessean newspaper told me the U.S. Department of Agriculture had just ruled all violations of the federal Horse Protection Act must be treated the same and, as I read the story, I could swear I heard snickers and giggles coming from Shelbyville. The Tennessee Walking Horse industry is still a long way from cleaning up its suddenly brutal image and the biggest governing group, which controls the Celebration, has handily illustrated for years it could care little about violations of the Horse Protection Act.
Call me callused or a cynic but when the top 20 trainers in the fabled Rider’s Cup standings have a total of 161 violations in the past two years and eight of the last 10 “Trainers of the Year” have violated the Horse Protection Act, the only thing that will ever make a difference is placing anyone who would purposely injure a horse in the dark and dank basement of a jail.
Many of the leaders in the Celebration hierarchy have colorful records of violations, according to USDA web sites.
The new “Picture Boy” of the industry is, of course, 5-foot-7 Jackie L. McConnell, the once highly-regarded horse trainer from Collierville who was shown savagely whipping and abusing animals in a horrifying undercover tape provided by the Humane Society of the United States on May 17. Since then, the national outcry has been enormous and the badly-mangled walking horse industry is now being compared to dog fighting, cock fighting and puppy factories.
McConnell, who will be sentenced in Federal Court on Sept. 10 after pleading guilty two weeks ago, is facing a June 26 trial on state charges in West Tennessee (Fayette County) and the 31-page indictment of cruelty to animals is sickening. A notorious scofflaw, McConnell has been in trouble for soring animals to make them step higher for almost 40 years and, unbelievably, his pattern of behavior seems to be the norm for “Big Lick” trainers and Celebration officials because none have ever been publically censured by the group.
The great and vast majority of those who show Tennessee Walking Horses are law-abiding horse people who would never harm their gentle gaited horses, but to those where stud fees of World Champions attract hundreds of thousands of dollars, the rampant cheating and subsequent abuse of the animals at the top level of the industry has now caused a widespread rage from those who love horses all over the world.
Earlier this week a fourth person named in the federal indictment pleaded guilty in Chattanooga. Jeff Dockery, a 56-year-old handler who admitted he entering horses in events for McConnell when Jackie was often suspended, will also be sentenced on Sept. 10 and was allowed to remain on bond because he is being treated for cocaine addiction at a Mississippi treatment facility. Dockery must also face state charges in Somerville (Fayette Co.) later this month.
The four guilty pleas in Federal Court of the Horse Protection Act are the first since the Act was introduced in 1970 and the state charges, which will be heard in a packed Fayette County circuit court, are an ample illustration state charges will soon begin to be filed on violators of Tennessee’s new legislation that makes horse abuse a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
But the signs of “old school” rules are still glaring. This weekend the Germantown Charity Horse Show will be held in West Tennessee and, while show officials made a huge display of the fact the now-despised McConnell would not be welcome, the judge of the show, according to the website, is Justin Jenne, a Shelbyville trainer who was suspended by the USDA for the whole year of 2011 for soring an animal. Believe it or not, the Germantown show raises money for children’s abuse.
Now skeptics are claiming the horse abuse in Tennessee is just as bad and more widespread than the tragic dog-fighting episode that landed NFL star Michael Vick in a federal prison in 2007. Vick’s notorious Bad Newz Kennels electrified the nation and Vick spent 21 months in Leavenworth prison before two more months of home confinement.
McConnell and the three others who pleaded guilty to only the first of a total of 52 counts are expected to get light sentences in September since violations of the Horse Protection Act are considered a misdemeanor by federal statutes. They will still be considered as felons and will be subject to close probation scrutiny.
What will happen in the state court is anybody’s guess. The new state legislation, making horse abuse a felony, will not go into effect until July, yet the severity of the charges could weigh heavily against McConnell and his handlers, particularly if the undercover tape is allowed in the courtroom and jurors can hear one downed horse crying like a child.
Horsemen say the USDA’s new rules of calling for violations to be treated in a uniform manner are encouraging, but will be weak to uphold. The Celebration crowd uses its own inspectors that are trained by the USDA but paid by SHOW. Thus, the USDA alleges far fewer violations are found by outside groups and less are reported than when the under-funded USDA veterinarians attend shows.
There is also a notable hesitation from Celebration officials to take a dramatic stand. The group quickly formed a Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization and one man who pledged $100,000 in matching funds was quickly identified as being under a current suspension by the USDA for violating the Horse Protection Act, along with his wife and trainer.
It is also noted that Keith Dane, the head of Equine Services for the Humane Society who made the scathing McConnell tape available to the ABC new show “Nightline,” faces a formal complaint from the Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association and could get ousted from its board of directors later this month in a well-criticized “closed” hearing.
So, yes, the USDA announcement this week was promising, but the long history of animal abuse by Tennessee Walking Horse trainers is legendary. Justice officials will wind up determining when the abuse will actually end – if ever -- but stronger federal and state laws must be in place and adequate government funding, starting with the USDA inspectors and Justice prosecutors, is also a factor.
Then there is “we the people” and, if the walking horse community balks at seeing a horse’s foot actually fall off and another laying in a stall because the pain is so bad, the horse cannot stand, then everybody has a chance. So do the horses.