Controversy surrounds MS Charity Horse Show – “Big Lick”

Posted by Marsha Thompson at WDAM Channel 7

Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital recently turned down charitable donations from the Mississippi Charity Horse Show

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JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) – Controversy is swirling around an upcoming Tennessee Walking horse show that features ‘Big Lick’ classes.

A group called the Walking Horse Alliance says this is cruel and abusive.

Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital recently turned down charitable donations from the Mississippi Charity Horse Show. Over 5 thousand people have signed a petition to stop the “Big Lick” competition, according to Oxford attorney Clant Seay.

Seay sent us numerous USDA documents citing previous abuse at this Jackson horse show.

Blair E. Batson’s Children’s Hospital says the national controversy over the way Tennessee Walking horses are trained and handled, particularly those performing the “Big Lick style”, brought them to the decision.

Here is the statement from UMMC:

After careful reflection, the administration of Batson Children’s Hospital has asked the organizers of the Mississippi Charity Horse Show to discontinue donating proceeds of the event to the hospital for the benefit of its patients. We are grateful for the generous support of the Charity Horse Show over the last several years. This support has included not only monetary contributions but also opportunities for patients under our care to be involved. Although we are comfortable the Mississippi show complies with all applicable laws for the protection of horses, the national controversy over the way Tennessee Walking Horses are trained and handled – particularly those that perform in the “Big Lick” style – has brought us to this decision. We are not in a position to evaluate the strongly held beliefs and assertions on either side of this issue, so our decision is intended to remove the Children’s Hospital from the controversy.

Big Lick is a horse picking up it’s hooves higher than it’s natural motion.

The Humane Society says some competitors have been known to illegally ‘sore’ the horses ankles by applying a caustic chemical that burns them. Chains and stacked shoes are then applied. The horses react to the pain and step higher.

Robert Taylor, the show promoter, tells me USDA veterinarians and USDA inspectors will be at the show to catch those who abuse horses.

Some 300 horses from around the southeast are expected to compete in the show March 26-28th. Taylor, a retired show promoter says this show is legal.

Taylor also says he is disappointed Blair E. Batson has declined donations. He says other deserving charities will receive donations.

Last year Batson received $45, 000.00.

Why This Congresswoman Opposes Effort To End Horrifying Horse Abuse

by (Become a fan) as published in the Huffington Post

“This legislation brings excessive regulatory burdens on the walking horse industry…”

Warning: Graphic Abuse Documented

WASHINGTON — The cruel practice of “soring” championship gaited horses by wrapping their hooves in corrosive chemicals and then applying chains or bands to the wounds in order to create an artificially high-stepping gait came under heightened scrutiny this week in Congress.

Kentucky Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield has introduced a bill to strengthen the decades-old ban on soring gaited horses. So far, Whitfield has garnered 233 co-sponsors from both parties, a difficult task in the highly polarized House of Representatives. But at a hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, Whitfield’s bill was met with opposition from his fellow Republican, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

Tennessee Walking Horse SoringKentucky and Tennessee are home to the bulk of the industry for gaited show horses, in which breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse are paraded around show rings for major prize money in intense competitions. To create the signature high-stepped gait, trainers often use heavy weights or painful chains on the horses’ hooves. What may look to the audience like a happy horse prancing is actually a horse flinching — the animal lifts its legs higher because putting them on the ground is painful.

Whitfield’s bill, called the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, would prohibit the use of any artificial tools to make horses hold their legs higher and stiffen maximum penalties for those who break existing Horse Protection Act statutes. It would also require that horse inspectors looking for soring be licensed by the USDA, and prohibit those with financial interests in the show industry from acting as inspectors. Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen is also a leading sponsor of the bill.

Blackburn, who is vice chair of the subcommittee that held the hearing and one of the top Republican women in the House, spoke out against the bill. “This legislation brings excessive regulatory burdens on the walking horse industry and could potentially eliminate the entire industry and thus the entire breed,” Blackburn told the witnesses. The lawmaker argued that the show-horse industry’s compliance with the current ban on soring is around 97 percent, thereby making any tougher inspections unnecessary.

Effects of Horse SoringBlackburn did not respond to a request for comment from The Huffington Post.

Current law bans the use of soring chemicals, but not the use of weighted horseshoes, hoof bands and other devices. Supporters of the PAST Act say the currently legal devices go hand-in-hand with chemical soring. As it stands, the walking horse industry is largely allowed to self-regulate whether owners and trainers abide by the law. And it reports its own — remarkably high — compliance rates.

But when independent USDA inspectors showed up in Blackburn’s home state in 2012 for the gaited horse industry’s splashy annual show, known as the Celebration, they found that 76% of a random sample of nearly 200 horses all tested positive for chemicals commonly used in soring. Donna Benefield, a witness at the congressional hearing Wednesday who has administered USDA-certified horse inspection programs for the past 25 years, said these chemicals can include blistering mustard oil, lighter fluid and salicylic acid.

SoringA 2012 expose by ABC News (above) contained gruesome footage of one of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry’s top trainers, Jackie McConnell, soring horses. McConnell, who pled guilty to violating the Horse Protection Act, can be seen beating horses with a pipe while they lie in their stalls. Horses are also shown with chains wrapped around deliberately-inflicted wounds on their hooves. In one especially disturbing clip, McConnell repeatedly electrocutes a horse.

Marty Irby, a former world-champion Tennessee Walking Horse competitor who recently became an anti-soring advocate, spoke to the committee on Wednesday about the industry’s problem. He said he became fed up with pretending that the abuse shown by ABC wasn’t a common practice.

“Should I continue to perpetuate the lie that the padded and chained performance Tennessee Walking Horses are mostly sound and a few bad [trainers] sore them, or should I recognize the truth: that all padded and chained Tennessee Walking Horses are either sore or have been sored?” Irby said. Irby, 34, comes from a long line of championship Tennessee Walking Horse breeders, and he told HuffPost that taking a public stand against the abuse has cost him his marriage, his career and his relationship with his parents.

In August, Blackburn observed horse inspections in person at the 2013 Celebration, the same annual horse show where inspectors found the shockingly high violation rate in 2012. The Tennessean reported that the top walking horse industry lobbying group, the Performance Show Horse Association (PSHA), hosted a campaign fundraiser for Blackburn during her visit. Guests paid $100 a ticket, according to the Tennessean.

Despite Blackburn’s attendance at the show, and the heightened caution following the damning ABC video, the 2013 Celebration still had major problems. Among them was the early elimination of Honors, one of the show’s most popular horses and a past champion, after inspectors found evidence of soring on his leg. And two horses belonging to Terry Dotson, the then-president of the PSHA, also failed their inspections, according to the Tennessean. Just days after hosting Blackburn, Dotson resigned his position as PSHA’s president.

Click (HERE) to comment directly at The Huffington Post

Walking Horse Groups Take Their Arguments to Congress

by Paul C. Barton as published at

“Current laws against Soring are not adequately enforced, and they need to be…”

Effects of Horse SoringWASHINGTON — Legislation to further protect performance horses against practices that artificially increase their gait comes before the House Wednesday for what is expected to be an emotionally charged hearing.

The subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will consider arguments on HR 1518, the Prevent all Soring Tactics bill.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., has 216 cosponsors, including one from the Tennessee congressional delegation, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

A Senate version offered by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has 26 cosponsors. Tennessee Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are not sponsoring the legislation.

Soring – inflicting pain on a walking horse to make it more high-stepping – is already prohibited by the Horse Protection Act of 1970.

Whitfield’s bill, however, would enhance the Department of Agriculture’s inspection and enforcement capabilities at horse shows and specifically outlaw the use of special pads on hoofs and chains on lower legs to make a horse raise its limbs higher.

Animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, contend such “action devices” often rub on areas made sore with blistering agents to inflict additional pain and achieve their purpose. Many involved in the walking horse industry say the charge lacks scientific evidence.

The fact that only one member of the state’s congressional delegation is cosponsoring the bill angers Marty Irby, past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’Association.

“I’m tremendously disappointed but not surprised,” Irby said, adding that many horse owners who want to preserve the status quo are politically connected to the delegation.

Irby said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, has told him she will oppose the bill and offer an alternative. Blackburn’s office did not respond by deadline to requests for comment.

As for the other delegation members, “They won’t give you a straight answer,” Irby said.

Opponents of the bill, including the Performance Show Horse Association, contend it is the proponents who are utilizing political connections. They point out that Connie Harriman-Whitfield, wife of the Kentucky congressman sponsoring the bill in the House, is a policy adviser to the Humane Society.

The Humane Society “has an agenda to eliminate the Tennessee walking horse as a breed,” said Jeffrey Howard, board member of the Performance Show Horse Association.

Tennessee congressional members who did address the bill offered differing views.

“We all want to protect horses, and if the industry is smart it will clean itself up. Current laws against Soring are not adequately enforced, and they need to be. If enforcement doesn’t improve, Congress should take additional steps,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, questioned aspects of the bill that would increase powers of the Agriculture Department.

“Certainly there must be sufficient measures in place to protect the welfare of these animals,” DesJarlais said. “However the answer is not to simply expand federal bureaucracy and allow the USDA to inconsistently police an industry where there is less than 2 percent of a problem. We all must strive to end the practice of soring, and I believe the sport’s 98-plus percent compliance rate over the past several years indicates positive movement towards that goal.”

Alexander’s office said the senior senator “is concerned that a few bad actors threaten the treasured Tennessee Walking Horse tradition.”

Alexander is reviewing the legislation and wants to examine expert testimony from the House hearing as well, his office said.

Corker’s office said, “We look forward to reviewing the legislation and testimony from Wednesday’s hearing in the House.”

Congress “has potential to end soring forever”


“To compromise would not free the Tennessee walking horse from this bondage forever…”

Keith DaneLegislation before Congress aimed at toughening measures around soring could end the cruel practice forever, the immediate past-president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association says.

Marty Irby was commenting on the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, currently before the House and Senate.

He said he fully supported the legislative push to toughen regulations around soring – the deliberate infliction of pain to horses’ legs and hooves to force them to perform an artificially high-stepping gait.

“Our United States Senators and Congressmen can virtually eliminate the cruel practice of soring and utilizing pads and chains, which is nothing short of slavery, by passing this amendment,” he said.

“To compromise would not free the Tennessee walking horse from this bondage forever. I stand firm and strong in my conviction, and I believe this is what it will take for the Tennessee walking horse to become the largest equine breed on Earth.”

Irby was commenting as the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration was coming to a close, and as the Humane Society of the United States has introduced a grants system that it hoped would encourage a sound and versatile future for competitive Tennessee walking horses.

Although the federal Horse Protection Act was enacted in 1970, it has been difficult to enforce and persistently flouted by a small but determined faction of the horse industry. As a result, soring has continued unabated.

The PAST Act will end walking horse industry self-policing, ban the use of certain devices associated with soring, strengthen penalties, and hold accountable all those involved in soring.

The measure has broad bipartisan support, with 140 co-sponsors in the House. The Senate bill was introduced just before the August recess.

Keith Dane, the director of equine protection for the humane society, said: “We believe the Tennessee walking horse industry can realize a sound future by recognizing some of its new leaders: owners and riders who appreciate the versatility, temperament and athleticism of this magnificent breed.”

Dane said the bill before Congress to toughen anti-soring measures would be an integral part of this push.

“When every aspect of soring abuse is eradicated by this important federal legislation, the horses and their caring owners will truly be able to shine.”…CONTINUED

Click (HERE) to read the rest of the story and to comment at HorseTalk

The Cruel, Corrupt Treatment of Horses

Commentary by U.S. Congressman Jim Moran

“Horses have been our companions and helped make this country what it is today”

Congressman Jim Moran, R.T. Fitch – president of Wild Horse Freedom Federation, Vicki Tobin – VP Equine Welfare Alliance speaking before National Capitol during press conference earlier this year ~ photo by Terry Fitch

Horses hold an iconic place in our nation’s history. Without Paul Revere‘s trusty steed, Brown Betty, the colonists in New England might have never known of the British forces’ late night advance toward Lexington. As American settlers moved west to the Pacific, horses pulled covered wagons and plowed fields on new homesteads. Horses accompanied many of our military commanders into battle, and horses still carry our fallen soldiers to their final resting places at Arlington National Cemetery.

Horses have been our companions and helped make this country what it is today.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to our nation’s relationship with horses. America’s admiration for horses’ natural magnificence is the foundation of numerous industries, yet many of the horses used in these enterprises are treated poorly. Two sporting industries plagued by this inconsistency are the Tennessee Walking Horse show circuit and the world of horse racing.

Tennessee Walking Horse shows are too often gaudy pageants that mask a deeply entrenched subculture of abuse. The Tennessee Walking Horse is a breed long-admired for its unique gait and gentle disposition. Unfortunately, these same traits have motivated unscrupulous trainers to practice what is known as “soring” — the infliction of extreme pain on the horses’ feet by using caustic chemicals and painful devices to elicit an exaggerated version of the horse’s natural walk. This gait, known as “the big lick,” is prized at certain horse shows and draws handsome stud fees for champion horses.

Although soring has been illegal under the federal Horse Protection Act (HPA) for 40 years, it remains a ubiquitous and insidious part of the Tennessee Walking Horse community. While the walking horse industry shrouds its training methods in secrecy and denies that the problem exists, trainers who have been compelled to speak truthfully in court appearances paint a different picture. Horse trainer Barney Davis at his sentencing hearing in a Tennessee federal court, after pleading guilty to soring horses, said that “Every walking horse that enters into a show is sored. They’ve got to be sored to walk. There ain’t no good way to put it, but that’s how it is.”

Davis and his contemporaries in cruelty and greed should face meaningful consequences for their crimes. Currently, USDA enforcement of the HPA is inadequate and the statutory penalties too weak to deter this crime. A recently released USDA rule would make penalties mandatory, but we need congressional action to ensure exposure of, and accountability for, violations.

The sport of horse racing has also been overtaken by rampant cruelties inflicted for the sake of financial gain. Once referred to as “the sport of kings,” horse racing is now subject to widespread drugging of racehorses. “Doping” is the practice of administering drugs to horses in order to give them a competitive advantage when racing. According to an investigative report in The New York Times earlier this year, “trainers experiment with anything that might give them an edge, including chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.” Doping is extremely dangerous to the horses and the jockeys who ride them because it masks warning signs of injuries and can cause horses to push beyond their limits. Devastating human and animal injuries and deaths have occurred as a result.

While the decentralized horse-racing industry has long promised to end this abuse, industry oversight has proved ineffective.

Lax enforcement allows violators to evade sanctions or receive mere slaps on the wrist as penalties. Inconsistent rules among various state commissions create a “race to the bottom” environment where individuals can avoid stricter sanctions by simply taking their operations to states with more lenient or non-existent regulations.

Federal oversight is urgently needed to address this corrupt practice that has spread to racetracks across the country because of the horse-racing industry’s inability or unwillingness to stop it. In 1980, the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act was introduced in Congress to address the doping problem, but never passed. Thirty-two years later, the trainer of I’ll Have Another — the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes — was suspended in California for accumulated doping violations. It is time for Congress to finally take a stand for these tremendous equine athletes by passing the Interstate Horse Racing Improvement Act (H.R. 1733/S. 886).

Horses are our companions, our partners in sport and a living reminder of the American spirit. We owe it to them to acknowledge this special bond and to give them the humane treatment they deserve.

Click (HERE) to support Moran’s effort to stop horse slaughter in the U.S.

USDA Finalizes Regulations to Strengthen Enforcement of the Horse Protection Act

Press Release from the Humane Society of the United States

Legislation Needed for More Effective Enforcement

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the release of its final rule requiring uniform mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the federal Horse Protection Act. USDA-certified horse industry organizations operate alongside the USDA to enforce the Horse Protection Act by conducting inspections at Tennessee Walking Horse competitions. The final rule also clarifies that the agency can decertify a horse industry organization for any failure to comply with the regulations.

This is a much-needed step to strengthen enforcement of the act, which prohibits the showing and transporting of horses whose legs have been “sored” through the application of painful chemicals or other painful training methods to force them to perform an artificially high-stepping gait for show competitions. The HSUS thanked Secretary Tom Vilsack and USDA for taking this action to protect horses.

“We know that soring is not limited to a ‘few bad apples,’ and we applaud USDA’s decision to crack down on violators across the industry,” said Wayne Pacelle, president & CEO of The HSUS. “Congress should take further steps to give USDA the tools it needs to eradicate cruel soring practices once and for all.”

In 2010, The HSUS and other horse industry and animal protection groups filed a legal petition with USDA seeking regulatory changes to improve enforcement of the Horse Protection Act – including the implementation of a mandatory penalty structure.  When the agency announced its intention to require mandatory penalties, several of the largest HIOs refused to comply and have continued to dole out penalties indiscriminately. In May 2011, USDA proposed a rule to make the change official.

There is abundant evidence revealing that soring of Tennessee Walking horses and other related breeds remains prevalent throughout this industry despite the decades-old law. A recent undercover investigation by The HSUS led to a 52 count indictment of Jackie McConnell, a well-known Tennessee Walking Horse trainer, and three of his associates. McConnell pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy to violate the HPA after he was caught on video soring and violently abusing horses. At the time of the investigation, McConnell was under a five-year federal disqualification from participating in horse shows – yet continued to train horses and get them into the show ring.

Between 2010 and 2011, HIOs cited each of the top 20 trainers in the industry’s Riders Cup point program for violations of the HPA—with a total of 164 citations between them. Of the violations recorded, the HIOs only issued penalties for 25 percent, most of which were mere two-week suspensions from showing. Even more disturbing, less than 30 percent of those penalties were actually served and some trainers were allowed to serve multiple penalties simultaneously.

These statistics clearly illustrate that soring is still practiced among the top ranks in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and that the industry’s current penalty structure has failed to deter trainers from abusing horses in violation of federal law. The law needs to be substantially strengthened in order to end a practice that has been illegal yet has continued unabated for more than 40 years.

2010/2011 HPA Violation Records:

•    Of the top 20 trainers  participating in the industry’s Riders Cup point program in 2011, 100 percent were cited by horse industry organizations for violations of the Horse Protection Act within the past two years
•    In total, 164 violations were cited for these trainers
•    Under the current penalty structure in place for the largest horse industry organizations, only 25 percent (41out of 164) of the violations called for penalties, most of which were only two-week suspensions
•    Only twelve of those 41 penalties were actually served—and some were served simultaneously by one trainer.

In addition to the top 20 trainers, there were 195 violations of the Horse Protection Act cited for trainers ranking from #21 – #74. Forty-two out of 53 of those trainers were cited during this two year period.

Stronger Federal Rule Announced to Impose Penalties against Horse Soring

Published in Wayne Pacelle’s A Humane Nation

“Soring has been a well-kept dirty secret in this industry and it’s time for this nonsense to end.”

The abuse of Tennessee walking horses has been in the news since The HSUS released video footage of one of the industry’s top trainers striking a horse in the face with a wooden handle and pouring injurious chemicals onto the feet of a horse. It was four decades ago that Congress passed the Horse Protection Act to prevent and criminalize “soring” and other abuses of horses. Tennessee state representative Janis Sontany wrote in a column in The Tennessean on Sunday: “Soring has been a well-kept dirty secret in this industry and it’s time for this nonsense to end.”

In 2010, The HSUS and a broad coalition of horse industry and animal protection groups filed a legal petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture documenting that soring practices are rampant in the industry as part of trainers’ and owners’ determination to produce the high-stepping gait, or “big lick,” glamorized in the show ring. The petition sought a number of regulatory changes to improve HPA enforcement―including the implementation of a mandatory penalty structure.

Today, in the wake of the furor that’s resulted from the public witnessing the abusive practices documented in HSUS’s investigation, the USDA announced that there will be mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the law. Through the years, industry inspectors (part of what are known as “Horse Industry Organizations”) cited some trainers for “soring” but penalties were not consistently meted out, and there was no therefore meaningful disincentive to stop the abuse.

Today’s announcement changes the equation and provides much-needed improvements in HPA enforcement―finally providing some level of deterrence for lawbreakers. I commend Agriculture Secretary Vilsack for issuing this rule today.

As pleased as we are with USDA’s action, there’s additional reform that’s needed in order to root out soring. Animal protection groups, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the USDA’s own Inspector General have argued that the current system of industry self-regulation is fundamentally flawed. USDA inspectors should be doing the enforcement work, since they don’t have the inherent conflicts that industry personnel have.

That’s a task that Congress must complete. Federal legislators must amend the HPA to eliminate the industry’s role in enforcement of the Act, close loopholes that violators often slip through, and give the USDA the tools to fully protect this wonderful breed of horse, as Congress intended when it passed this law 42 years ago.

Since McConnell’s indictment, we’ve been hard at work bringing this abuse to the attention of state and federal authorities, urging them to do more to enforce and stiffen existing laws. We petitioned USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to treat the use of numbing and masking agents (used to camouflage evidence that a horse has been sored) as felony interference in enforcement of the HPA. And we asked the Tennessee Attorney General to investigate whether the current state cruelty law is being followed in reporting and prosecuting soring at horse shows in the state.

A recent analysis of the violation history of the top 20 trainers in the industry’s Riders Cup high point program found that every one of them was cited for HPA violations in the past two years, with a total 164 violations among them. How many served a suspension penalty? A mere 7 percent―and of those, all but a handful were for a measly two-week period.

We will also be calling on the industry itself to take some common-sense steps, including ousting those who torment animals from the show ring, establishing a zero-tolerance policy for this criminal behavior, and adopting practices and policies that will secure a place in the future of American equestrian sport for this breed. We want to help the industry reform, rebuild, and regrow, with the good, law-abiding animal lovers at the helm, reaping the rewards of fair, humane―and legal―competition.

Notorious Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer Pleads Guilt to Federal Charges

Tennessee Walking Horse performing running walk

Tennessee Walking Horse performing running walk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HSUS Press Release

HSUS Reacts to Guilty Pleas in Federal Horse Abuse Case

In the wake of The Humane Society of the United States’ undercover investigation into the shocking abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses, notorious trainer Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty yesterday to a felony conviction for charges related to conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act. Two of McConnell’s associates also pleaded guilty to related charges.

The HSUS expresses its thanks to U.S. Attorney William C. “Bill” Killian and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven S. Neff and M. Kent Anderson for pursuing criminal charges for violations of the HPA, and congratulates them on securing guilty pleas, including McConnell’s guilty plea to the charge of felony conspiracy—the most serious of the 52 counts in the federal indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in February. Federal charges are still pending against a fourth individual charged in the case. McConnell and two others also face 31 counts of violating Tennessee’s state animal cruelty statute in a separate matter that is still pending.

“Although the Horse Protection Act has been in place for more than 40 years, violators have seldom been prosecuted,” said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for The HSUS. “The McConnell case, and the conviction and imprisonment earlier this year of Barney Davis—another Tennessee horse trainer—send a clear message to anyone who sores a gaited show horse that soring is a federal crime, and the government will prosecute violators. We thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General, and Federal Bureau of Investigation for their work in these cases, and urge the federal government to continue to make enforcement of the Horse Protection Act a top priority.”

For seven weeks in 2011, The HSUS conducted an undercover investigation in McConnell’s Whitter Stables, showing individuals abusing horses by using painful chemicals on the horses’ front legs to force them to perform an artificially high-stepping gait for show competitions. The footage also shows horses being brutally whipped, kicked, shocked in the face, and violently cracked across the heads and legs with heavy wooden sticks. The nation was shocked when this inexcusable cruelty was released to the public on ABC’s Nightline last week.

The HSUS investigator documented McConnell soring Moody Star, the winner of the 2010 Celebration Reserve World Grand Champion owned by Wilsene Moody. Some in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry deny that soring is still a pervasive part of the training process used to produce the “Big Lick” – the gait frequently accomplished by mechanical or chemical soring – that wins ribbons and titles at breed competitions. But at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, 52 of the 52 horses randomly chosen by the USDA tested positive for prohibited foreign substances applied to their pasterns. Foreign substance violation rates (for soring, numbing, or masking agents) at all USDA-inspected shows were 86 percent in 2010 and 97.6 percent in 2011, an indication that soring is widespread in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. At the time of The HSUS’s investigation, McConnell was under a five-year federal disqualification from participating in horse shows – yet continued to train horses and get them into the show ring.

The HSUS has long been dedicated to ending this inhumane practice, and in the wake of this investigation, will be doing even more to root out and expose the terrible abuses of show horses.  Significant reforms to the HPA are needed and we will be working with Congress to strengthen the law, toughen the penalties, and provide adequate funding to give USDA the tools it needs to stamp out this cruel practice once and for all.

Abuses Are Rampant in Tennessee Walking Horse Industry

by Wayne Pacelle of

Tennessee walking horses don’t naturally throw their front legs way up in the air…”

Shelbyville Farm Center division manager Joe Green, Sr. told The Tennessean, in a story published today, that last Wednesday night’s report on ABC’s Nightline exposing illegal training practices within the show world for Tennessee walking horses painted “a bad picture.” “The good guys have tried so hard to make it right, then that bad guy comes along and tries to ruin it for everybody.”

His son―who runs the Farm Center, which does a lot of business with show horse owners and trainers―had a similar message he conveyed: “The walking horse industry has been under such a microscope for so long that most of the bad guys have been weeded out, and it was unfortunate that ABC tried to paint all of them as bad,” said Joe Green, Jr. “The way they did that TV piece wasn’t even journalism.”

These people may really believe what they say―perhaps because people within this industry have been in denial so long. You repeat something long enough that you then internalize it―like so many other people who participate in or defend animal abuse. I see it with sealers, with puppy millers, with cockfighters, and with just about every subculture that causes harm to animals.

Tennessee walking horses don’t naturally throw their front legs way up in the air, with such a strangely exaggerated gait. This “big lick” gait is artificial and regularly accomplished by the illegal practice of “soring”―the intentional infliction of searing pain with each step. By every indication, this practice is absolutely pervasive in the industry, and it is these competitive pressures that have led to a sort of arms race within the training profession―and the arms used against the horses are oil of mustard, croton oil, chains, and other foreign substances and tools.

The now-indicted horse trainer Jackie McConnell may be a particularly ruthless and harsh man, but so many other trainers are working in the shadows and using very similar methods to get the same results. There is widespread lawlessness within this industry, and the deniers need to take note and recognize reality. Opinion leaders are saying the same thing, such as The Tennessean editorial board and columnist David Climer.

Barney Davis, who along with three others was also indicted for Horse Protection Act (HPA) violations in 2011, pled guilty to violating the Act and was sentenced to a one-year prison term after he was caught soring horses on video while out on bond. When the court asked Davis about the pervasiveness of illegal soring in the industry, he responded, “Everybody does—I mean, they’ve got to be sored to walk.” Davis used “pressure shoeing” as his soring method of choice―but the goal was to produce a high-stepping gait by inflicting pain, as McConnell did. These are standard practices in the world of training for these shows. We’re not talking about a few bad apples here.

Take a look at these facts:

  • The industry claims a 98 percent compliance rate with the HPA, yet 52 of the 52 horses randomly tested were found by USDA to be positive for prohibited foreign substances having been applied to their ankles, at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, which is the major annual show (the Super Bowl, if you will) within the industry. Foreign substance violation rates (for soring, numbing, or masking agents) at all shows at which USDA inspected horses were 86 percent in 2010 and 97.6 percent in 2011. It doesn’t get more pervasive than that.
  • In 2006, the Celebration failed to crown a World Grand Champion of the breed when only three of the horses entered to be shown were able to pass inspection for compliance with the HPA. Industry inspectors, under the watchful eye of USDA agents, ruled most of the entries ineligible to compete―and show management decided to shut the event down, rather than hold a three-horse class for the breed’s most coveted title.
  • A recent analysis of the HPA violation history of the 2011 Riders Cup nominated trainers indicates that the top 20 ranking trainers collectively received 164 citations in 2010-2011 alone, suggesting that if you want to win big, you have to violate the law.

There are voices within the industry condemning McConnell, and they’ve rightly excommunicated him. But if they really want the public to believe that the industry is largely complying with the HPA, they need to be much more transparent in their words and deeds―acknowledging the violation histories of key players, and allowing independent law enforcement officials to examine their training practices and the horses before the competitions. And they should be the first in line to support The HSUS’s efforts to strengthen the law, which has not been updated since it was amended in 1976, and to seek adequate funding for enforcement.

That’s my challenge to the leaders of the industry: join us in the efforts to modernize the law and enforce it. Send a response through this blog, and we’ll work together on it.

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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