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Indictment of horse trainer revives debate over soring

Editor's Note: The following article appeared in the Thursday, March 8 edition of the Nashville Tennessean. The article does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument. Reprinted by permission of The Tennessean.

By Larry Taft

A federal grand jury in Chattanooga returned a 52-count indictment against prominent Tennessee Walking Horse trainer Jackie McConnell and three others last week, citing systematic abuse of horses.

Industry watchers weren't surprised.

McConnell already was serving a five-year federal suspension that prohibited him from showing horses, the results of a previous Horse Protection Act violation. Additionally, during last year's Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, federal agents raided McConnell's rented barn in Shelbyville and his main training facility, confiscating much of his training equipment.

The indictment brought to light once again the wide chasm between the horse industry and some animal rights advocates. Among the issues is whether Tennessee Walking Horses can be humanely trained to achieve their unusual gait.

Walking Horse enthusiasts and the U.S. Department say they can be. The Humane Society of the United States says it's impossible without the cruel practice of "soring" - injuring horses' front legs to make them lift their feet higher and step farther.

"The gait that is being rewarded in the show ring is not a natural gait," said Keith Dane, director of Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

Soring dates back to the 1950s within the Tennessee Walking Horse and other breeds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's web site describes it as "irritating or blistering a horse's forelegs through the application of chemicals such as mustard oil or the use of mechanical devices." It's a violation of federal law and industry standards.

Throughout Middle Tennessee, most Tennessee Walking Horse shows are affiliated with federally sanctioned Sound Horses, Honest Judging, Objective Inspection, Winning Fairly - or SHOW - a Shelbyville-based organization whose primary purpose is to inspect horses and ban those that don't comply with the Horse Protection Act.

The USDA web site shows that in the past two years, 98 percent of the horses presented for pre-show inspection at SHOW-affiliated events are HPA compliant.

SHOW President Dr. Stephen L. Mullins, a veterinarian, said Wednesday that inspection of horses for his organization is a serious matter.

"We do everything within our power to make sure that each horse is inspected in accordance with the Horse Protection Act," he said. "It does not matter who the owner is. It does not matter who the trainer is. It does not matter what the horse's reputation is.

"And at many of the shows where we inspect horses, there are USDA veterinarians watching our inspections. If they do not think we are being stringent enough, they pull the horses over and do an examination themselves."

But for the Humane Society's Dane, that is not enough. He contends the USDA and industry inspectors are allowing sored horses into the show ring.

"A number of horses that pass inspection have been sored," he said. "There is a fine line between a sound horse and a compliant horse."

His organization played a major role in the investigation and arrest of McConnell, placing an employee in the trainer's stables and turning over what she learned to the Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

Dane said some trainers are applying numbing agents to the horses forelegs, and that horses should be made to wait for an hour after being brought to inspection before they are examined to see whether that wears off.

Mullins said those accusations don't reflect the reality of what takes place at large shows.

"Horses arrive for inspection, and then it usually takes 30 minutes of waiting for them to be inspected," Mullins said. "Then, they are in a holding area for about an hour or more before they go into the show ring.

"All the while they are waiting to go to the show ring, our inspectors and the USDA veterinarians are observing them. At any time someone suspects they are not sound, they are pulled out - either by our people or by the USDA - and rechecked."

Mullins also noted that his inspectors routinely take swabs on a certain percentage of horses, checking for foreign substances.

"I won't tell you that there is not some of that happening, but it is not common as some people would have you think," he said. "We cite those who are not in compliance, and we turn our information over to the USDA."

Industry insiders expressed dismay when officials cited McConnell, 60, of Collierville, Tenn., and those charged with him - Jeff Dockery, 54, and John Mays, 50, both of Collierville, and Joseph Abernathy, 30, of Olive Branch, Miss.

McConnell is considered top trainer, and in 1997 rode the famed walking horse Santana to the world grand championship.

"The Walking Horse Trainers Association works tirelessly to educate our members on the Horse Protection Act and the importance of compliance with the law," WHTA President Jamie Hankins said in a statement last week following McConnell's arrest. "We continue to dedicate more resources to the education of our members as it relates to the welfare of our great horse and proper training techniques."

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