On Tuesday of next week the eyes of the international horse world, from Australia to Belgium to the Middle East itself, will focus sharply on Chattanooga where the loudest Federal Court sentencing since Jimmy Hoffa was once skewered by Bobby Kennedy in 1964 will be handed down by Federal Judge Sandy Mattice.
Back when Teamster boss Hoffa was brought down by prosecutor James Neal and soon found guilty of trying to bribe a grand juror, the sensational trial had all the trappings of Hollywood sleaze -- a sinister criminal element, high-level corruption and more G-men in town that you could count. Hoffa got eight years but when Jackie McConnell faces Judge Mattice next week after already pleading guilty to violating the federal Horse Protection Act, it is believed the sadistic horse trainer and serial abuser will walk away with just probation. All around the world, millions of people are incensed.
Ironically, there has been more interest in McConnell’s trial than there was in Hoffa because horsemen and horsewomen all over the globe have now seen the hideous videotape that has been aired repeatedly on television and YouTube of the Collierville, Tn., trainer savagely abusing Tennessee Walking Horses. Who owns that horse? they scream.
The international horse community does not understand it at all and, after I have received countless emails from those as far away as Tasmania, horse lovers around the world don’t understand Tennesseans either. What tribe of people intentionally hurt and abuse their horses? They don’t do it in Afghanistan, Libya or Morocco but are led to believe that in Tennessee this is part of life.
In the Middle East they believe “the wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears” and Sir Winston Churchill once observed, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Abraham Lincoln claimed, “I can make a General in five minutes but a good horse is hard to replace,” and then there is the Bedouin legend: “Allah took a handful of southerly wind, blew His breath over it, and created the horse. Thou shall fly without wings, and conquer without any sword, O, Horse!”
So the cry comes and it is loud; why do people in Tennessee hurt their horses? Around the world, a horse is the most sacred of all animals. A cow or a pig or a donkey is mere livestock, a cat or a dog just a pet. But a horse has been man’s most prized companion for centuries and, just now, as a small but potent cancer called the “Big Lick” is actually threatening the entire Tennessee Walking Horse breed, I can tell you that every international equine authority and publication is watching McConnell’s Chattanooga appearance in the same way they might regard a poisonous and hissing snake.
Jackie McConnell is a Big Lick villain. Oh, there are others still enmeshed in the twisted Shelbyville hierarchy who are just as bad but, as McConnell’s 30 years of abuse have come to light, international horse groups are gasping why Tennesseans have done nothing to curb a wide pattern of constant and continued abuse. And when they heard that Jackie and his wife just sponsored a victory trophy at the Tennessee Walking Horse World Celebration just two weeks ago, the hypocrisy and loathing for the Big Lick hierarchy ramped up to its highest point of the summer.
It has been brought out often that the breed is among the most noble of all American horses, and that 97 percent of the owners and riders would never harm an animal, but the bloodlust segment of the industry continues to ruin the Walker’s image badly. Longtime riders in Texas, California, Alaska, Minnesota and other states now cringe at the sight of padded hooves, chains, straps and other action devices and two leading equine veterinarian groups are calling for such equipment to be outlawed.
The “Big Lick” faction, in an effort to openly defy USDA and Humane Society inspectors, tactfully hired an “inside veterinarian” from Kentucky’s once-respected Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital to counter soring claims and it has since turned into a public relations disaster. It seems the vet, Dr. Scott Hooper, has previous ties with his Shelbyville employers and both the doctor and the hospital are now being publicly discredited for their questionable involvement.
People in England and France can’t understand that. The Tennessee legislature made horse abuse a felony during the summer but the Big Lickers have fought back, seeking blatant favoritism with those like Congressman Scott Desjarlais (R-Jasper) by hosting a money-raising reception for the politician during the Celebration. A number of horses were disqualified at the Celebration but the county sheriff did not make a single arrest and a spokesperson explained it away, saying “that’s a federal thing.”
Around the world those who love the horse just don’t get it. Nowhere on any other continent, from darkest Africa to the expert horsemen in Outer Mongolia, would any tribe hurt its horses except those in Tennessee. They can hardly wait to watch what we do about it next week.