Today, HSUS representatives are in Tennessee to release a powerful undercover investigation video that exposes animal abuse in the Tennessee walking horse industry, as practiced by one of its most infamous trainers, Jackie McConnell. I wrote about this investigation earlier this year, but we chose not to release the video until now. Last night, ABC’s Nightline aired the video footage for the first time, in a dramatic and compelling in-depth investigative report, which featured reporter Brian Ross tracking down McConnell at his home as part of a broad exposé that demonstrates how thoroughly corrupted the walking horse industry has become.
Some months ago, we shared the results of our investigation with federal prosecutors, and in February a federal grand jury indicted McConnell―a highly decorated trainer of Tennessee walking horses―and several of his associates, on 52 counts of violating the Horse Protection Act. Congress passed this act more than 40 years ago to end the cruel practice of horse soring, which involves the application of painful chemicals (such as mustard oil or kerosene) and chains to horses’ front legs, with the pain inducing them to lift their feet in an exaggerated way. The result is the artificial, high-stepping gait that wins titles and prizes at Tennessee walking horse competitions, and also brings higher horse sale prices and stud fees.
McConnell recently filed a notice of intent to plead guilty to Count I of the indictment—felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act. A federal judge will hear his plea on Tuesday. He and his associates were also charged with numerous violations of the Tennessee Cruelty to Animals Statute in a case that is still pending.
The shocking, blatant abuse uncovered by our investigator was the basis for many of the charges in these cases. In addition to soring, the video shows horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face, and cracked across the skulls and legs with heavy wooden sticks. Some horses were in so much pain that they were unable to stand. We also documented a cruel practice called “stewarding”―training horses not to react to pain during official show inspections of their legs, by striking them in the head when they flinch during mock inspections in the training barn.
In addition, our investigation uncovered the use of numbing agents at a horse show, for the purpose of temporarily masking a horse’s reaction to pain to pass inspection. USDA recently conducted random testing at various Tennessee walking horse competitions, and the results indicate that a shocking 97.6 percent of the samples tested positive for prohibited foreign substances in 2011. Indeed, of the 52 horses tested at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the largest and most prominent walking horse show in the country, every single horse tested positive for illegal agents. This March, The HSUS filed a petition urging the agency to prosecute such use as felony interference with the inspection process under the Horse Protection Act.
Although McConnell’s is the second case involving felony indictments under the Horse Protection Act in the last year, the law has been flouted for decades―and many trainers in the walking horse industry continue to sore horses even after being found in violation of the Act repeatedly and even after having been suspended from showing. Jackie McConnell was on a five-year federal disqualification from showing at the time of this HSUS investigation. It’s been a competitive race to the bottom in the walking horse industry, with trainers believing that success requires this sort of law-breaking.
The USDA, under Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, has stepped up enforcement of the Horse Protection Act. But the law, now more than 40 years old, needs to be overhauled and fortified by Congress. This industry has accepted lawlessness as the norm, and given its track record, the Horse Protection Act must be amended to give USDA the tools it needs to root out and eliminate this criminal culture once and for all. Please take action today to help protect horses from soring.