Horse Training Abuse Case Gains Momentum as PepsiCo Pulls Support from Shows

By Phil Gast, CNN

“There obviously is a huge problem…”

An undercover video shows horses being struck with sticks and subjected to “soring,” an illegal process in which chemicals are placed on their lower legs in an effort to induce the signature Tennessee Walking Horse high-stepping gait.

The graphic video shows trainer Jackie L. McConnell of Whitter Stables of Collierville, Tennessee, and others subjecting show horses to practices that were banned 40 years ago. One image shows a writhing horse being subjected to a whip at McConnell’s barn. Another receives a shock to the head.

The video, made by a Humane Society of the United States investigator, was first featured Wednesday on the ABC News program “Nightline.”

It has raised questions of how pervasive the training techniques are despite recent prosecutions and investigations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Horse Protection Act.

“There obviously is a huge problem,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president for litigation and investigations with the Humane Society. “In the competition to get this unnatural gait, trainers are using banned substances to cheat.”

Horse show judges value the exaggerated gait, called the “big lick.” Shows in Tennessee and elsewhere annually draw thousands of spectators.

PepsiCo on Thursday confirmed it had pulled its sponsorship of this summer’s Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

Asked if the sponsorship decision was in response to the 2011 video, PepsiCo spokesperson Vincent Bozek said, “That’s all we’re saying.” The decision was made Wednesday.

The president of a Tennessee horse industry organization, condemning the “disturbing” video, told CNN there is a stringent inspection process at shows.

“I think it’s sad that a corporation like Pepsi would go out because of the action of one person and one training barn,” said Dr. Stephen Mullins of S.H.O.W.

McConnell and three other men were named in a 52-count federal indictment earlier this year.

According to a defense filing in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, McConnell will plead guilty next week to a count of conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act.

McConnell’s attorney, Tom Greenholtz of Chattanooga, confirmed to CNN that his client is wielding a stick on a horse in a portion of the video.

Greenholtz said he could not comment at this time on the specifics of the case or McConnell’s view of the allegations.

McConnell faces a maximum five-year prison sentence and expects the government to dismiss the other counts, the attorney said.

According to the indictment, “soring is a cruel and inhumane practice used to accentuate a horse’s gait in order to gain a competitive edge in horse shows.” Chemicals and other irritants on a horse’s ankles and forelegs cause it to lift its front feet and shift its weight unnaturally to the hind legs in order to relieve the pain, the indictment states.

The Humane Society said its investigator documented “stewarding” — training a horse not to react to pain during official show inspections of their legs for soreness — by striking them in the head when they flinch during mock inspections.

The video was filmed in spring 2011 by an investigator who worked two months as a stablehand at McConnell’s barn, according to the Humane Society.

Lovvorn told CNN the society shared the video and results of its investigation with federal prosecutors before the indictment was returned.

In separate cases, a seven-month investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture resulted in at least four other Tennessee men being sentenced this year for horse soring violations.

One defendant sentenced to 12 months in prison and a $4,000 fine described how chemical irritants, chains, bolts and other devices were used to bring about the exaggerated gait.

“He stressed the pervasiveness of soring in the gaited horse industry and testified that horses ‘have got to be sored to walk,'” according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

S.H.O.W., certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), handles inspections of Tennessee horses at events.

Mullins, a retired equine veterinarian, said self-regulation by the industry has led to three lifetime and 150 one-year suspensions for soring and other violations of the Horse Protection Act.

Trainers shouldn’t relay on soring to train horses to hit the “big lick,” said Mullins, acknowledging the industry still has problems. “I was given one charge (task). Get rid of the sore horse. I think we are well on our way.”

One painless training technique, he said, is to fit pads, about 3 inches tall, below the horse’s hoof.

“It can change the way the horse lands on its foot,” according to Mullins. “It requires him to exaggerate and keep his foot up for a longer period of time.”

S.H.OW.’s oversight, however, does not extend to training facilities and barns.

“Soring is a way to take a horse that is not very good … to make him look good,” said Mullins. “Do I think it goes on around the trainers who show routinely with me? No sir, I do not believe it does.”

Lovvorn, of the Humane Society, said soring “has been an open secret in Tennessee for years.”

Prosecutions, a stringent update of the Horse Protection Act and recently approved additional resources for the Agriculture Department are key, he said.

A 2010 Office of Inspector General audit within the USDA pointed out the need for more funding of federal inspections and shortcomings and inconsistencies of those done by people associated with horse industry organizations.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, in a statement Thursday, said it reaffirmed its opposition to violations of the Horse Protection Act.

“The walking horse holds an inherent natural gait that has been in existence for nearly 100 years,” said group President Marty Irby. “(The association) adopted a zero tolerance policy in regards to soring a number of years ago and has recently challenged every member to adopt a zero tolerance policy themselves.”

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Wild Horse Controversy in Kansas?

Unedited transcript from KSN.com, NBC Channel 3 Wichita Kansas

BLM Creates Fiscal Disaster While Complaining About Wild Horse and Burro Upkeep

WICHITA, Kansas — Deep in the heart of The Flint Hills, the ground gives warning of what is coming; thousands of horses, more wild than their name could ever suggest, thundering across Kansas in a spectacle many don’t even know exists.

“A lot of people are surprised to learn that there are many thousands of wild horses in Kansas,” said Bureau of Land Management spokesman, Paul McGuire.

Once roaming open ranges in The West, these American Mustangs have been transported to Kansas as part of the federal government’s Wild Horse Program.

Today 9,593 Mustangs call Kansas home, occupying almost 77,000 acres of the Sunflower State.

“It may not appear to be ideal pasture but for these wild horses it is,” said McGuire.

In the 1970’s, The Bureau of Land Management was charged with preserving the animal, many feared was at risk of disappearing. Before long, the BLM’s task evolved.

“The issue that we have now is not one of the animals being at risk of vanishing. It’s quite the opposite. It’s that they’re overpopulating the areas that they inhabit,” said McGuire.

Its overpopulation, according to the BLM, that if not managed would threaten the land, other wildlife, even energy resource development.

“The public lands are managed for a wide variety of purposes and it’s a delicate balancing act. BLM has to manage the interests and concerns and values of 300 million Americans and that’s a very daunting task,” said McGuire.

Also daunting is the program’s cost, billed to the American taxpayer.

Last year, The Wild Horse and Burro Program cost $75 million. Some goes to horse adoption programs, research and range monitoring but a lot goes to the ranchers, who provide the land and food for these transplanted horses to live.

They’re paid about $1.30 per horse, per day. At one Kansas ranch, where there are 4,400 Mustangs, that equals a paycheck of over $2million each year.

“So it is a pretty expensive proposition. Keeping horses in holding is not the ideal situation. The ideal situation is to find homes for animals that are removed from range. Beyond that, the ideal situation is to get the populations on the range in balance with the numbers that can be placed for adoption,” said McGuire.

The BLM acknowledges it is always trying to improve its wild horse program and no one can deny its incredible cost but the alternatives proposed couldn’t be any more different.

A short drive south through The Flint Hills, lives Trixie; a rescued Mustang who now calls The Rainbow Meadows Equine Rescue and Retirement home, along with dozens of other horses.

Animal Welfarist Karen Everhardt is adamant that the BLM’s program is not only broken, but abusive. Not all BLM horses end up running free on Kansas land.

“Some of those horses remain in those intermediate holding facilities for a long, long time and they’re nothing more than a feedlot. Nothing more. In the mud, with no protection, out in the deserts,” said Everhardt.

Everhardt maintains the program has turned into an issue of greed and cheap grazing units. She says all the BLM has to do is let the horses go back to where they came from and instead focus on birth control and creating water and food for them in the wild.

“What motivates us as human beings to think that we are so omnipotent that we know how to do it better than they know how to do it themselves? They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. We’ve been doing it for 30,” said Everhardt.

Not far from Rainbow Meadows, Carl Thurow’s prized Paint Horses devour their afternoon treat.

”Horses are my life,” said Thurow.

Thurow says he loves horses but his answer to the wild horse issue is very different.

“The taxpayer is just paying to keep horses alive, for what?” said Thurow.

He agrees with the BLM, that if left in the wild, the overpopulation would be devastating. Thurow believes it only makes sense to re-open horse slaughter plants.

“Those excess animals, the old animals that they call off, we take them to the horse slaughter and then they create good for somebody. You know, there’s somebody that benefits from those horses and it’s not a drain on our national economy taking care of these things,” said Thurow.

Back in the hills, a new heard of Mustangs have been dropped off and are now exploring their new home.

Little do they know the debate that rages around them, as wild as their western spirit.

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