Roy Exum: Guess Who Judges Horses?

Thursday, May 24, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Jackie McConnell, the now-notorious abuser of horses who is awaiting sentencing in a Chattanooga Federal Court after admitting guilt to the Horse Protection Act, had his picture jerked off the wall in the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Hall of Fame yesterday and was banned for life from the show’s premises and all other activities. Well, whoop-de-doo – what about the many horses he has clobbered in over 30 years of chronicled abuse and torture or, far more frightening, the louts who are still very visible in what should be one of the world’s most beautiful and enchanting events?

Doyle Meadows, the CEO of the now-tarnished Celebration, piously told the Nashville Tennessean yesterday, “This action is the strongest we can take and it clearly reflects our disgust with the actions of Mr.

McConnell.” Ironically, as he spoke there were the names of 127 trainers and owners on a U.S. Department of Agriculture website who are currently suspended for violating the federal Horse Protection Act, which clearly and plainly forbids “soring” in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. I dare say Meadows knows of this list and is well aware of internal files that will prove misdeeds involving a number of World Champions sanctioned by the Celebration over four decades.

My heavens! In July of 1973 Jackie McConnell was among 30 owners and trainers who were indicted by a federal grand jury in Memphis for horrible soring violations during the 1972 Cotton Carnival horse show. This man has since been enshrined into the Hall of Fame, ridden World Champions and collected a string of scathing suspensions to rival a serial murderer but – hallelujah – yesterday they took his picture of the wall. Hollywood couldn’t make this up!

Officials like Meadows swear the despicable abuse – where caustic chemicals and other barbaric devices cause the pain-crazed animals to step higher -- is not widespread but a loud and rapidly growing number of owners furiously disagree, pointing to the virtual crescendo of startling facts that have emerged since the despicable McConnell was shown brutalizing several beautiful animals in a Humane Society video last Wednesday on the ABC show, “Nightline.”

The USDA list of suspensions – easily found on the government website – shows that 30 of those suspensions have been given this year alone by a woefully understaffed USDA but more startling is a nauseating revelation that some of the judges who actually award the coveted ribbons are known to have seedy reputations -- yet remain well-entrenched in the walking-horse aristocracy headquartered in Shelbyville.This is growing more unbelievable by the day. David Howard, an obviously well-informed board member of National Celebration group, publishes an industry magazine (The Walking Horse Report) and, at McConnell’s hearing on Tuesday, Howard told a Times-Free Press reporter, “I’ve been in the business a long time and it shocked me. It’s just totally unbelievable.”

No, what is “totally unbelievable” is that a man as well-versed and as respected as Howard has apparently been smoking something stronger than alfalfa. C’mon, David, you know better than anybody what is going on. I’ve been following the story for less than a week and it becomes more lurid by the day. Let’s look at two big shows within easy reach:

At the 44th Annual Walking Horse Trainers Show, which was held just last month at the Smoky Mountain Expo Center in White Pine, Tn. (April 12-14), the actual judges --  the guys who ran the whole show and decided which horses won -- included Eddie Barclay, Spencer Benedict and Wayne Dean. Barclay has been suspended for Horse Protection Act violations six times, Benedict once, and Dean five times.

At the 42nd Annual Spring Fun Show, which will be held this weekend at the Calsonic Arena in Shelbyville, the judges – the guys who will run the show and decide which horses win – will include Jamie Bradshaw, Ray Gilmer and Andy Simpson. Bradshaw has been suspended for Horse Protection Act violations twice, Gilmer three times (once for just one day?), and Simpson once.

How do you like them apples? I suspect the men I just mention have all “changed,” since suspensions seems to have a lasting effect, but it’s like a horsewoman named Pam pointed out in an email, “In my mind, it's simple. If you don't award the "blue ribbon" or "walking horse of the year" to sored horses then people wouldn't sore them.

“Let's say I'm a judge,” Pam reasoned. “I would award for......horses with total natural gait, NO shoes, only barefoot. Extra points for lesser bits, etc. can't you imagine what would happen in this million-dollar industry? Suddenly it would all change, because after all humans are egomaniacs and driven by money. So the judging needs to change and I have no idea where they are going to find some educated judges.”

But what happens if the judges are, say, in cahoots with slimy guys like McConnell, who has been suspended at least 13 times and was just shown a week ago in a horrific video where he beat a horse with an electric cattle prod? Trust me, from the volumes of mail I have gotten people are really angry right now and are adamant about sweeping changes.

McConnell, whose health and age seems to worry prosecutors to the point they are actually allowing him to cop a no-jail plea, has Kimberly Reynolds of Franklin in a rage. “So the guy was too old and too feeble to pay for his crimes, but he had no problem beating the crap out of several completely-innocent 1,200-pound animals?”

My goodness! Even the Celebration board member Howard said in the Tennessean, “What you saw in Jackie McConnell’s barn was a crime.” He also shed light on why there are 127 suspensions now listed on the USDA’s website, “Why did Roger Clemens take drugs?” he quipped.

Lewisburg trainer Barney Davis has thus far been the only walking horse trainer put in jail and, when he was sentenced in Chattanooga in February, he sang when he was on the witness stand. He said soring is necessary “so horses can step as big as they can step. That’s how you win. The owners want the big money, the prestige, you know?“

"(The owners) want to know they have a horse than can win,” Davis explained and he bluntly told the Chattanooga court that soring is common. “Everybody does – I mean, they’ve got to be sored to walk. I mean, that’s the bottom line. It’s ain’t no good way to put it but that’s it.”

Davis got a year in the slammer. Federal Judge Sandy Mattice will decide in coming months whether to accept the shaky plea deal or take the case to trial. The way things have exploded since the Humane Society exposed Jackie using his cattle prod, there is just no telling what will happen between now and then but maybe, just maybe, some beautiful horses may have a chance.

royexum@aol.com


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