Horse Health

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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42 replies »

  1. I don’t like the practice of soring a horse, but think it is illegal. Rather than Pepsi pulling their support and hurting those people who show without soring, why don’t they just enforce the rules/laws that are already in place. I don’t fault Pepsi – it was a very disturbing video, but hate it for the people who show their horses with their natural gaits (I’m assuming these people show).


    • Pepsi didn’t hurt the people who show without soring, people who abuse the horses hurt those who show without soring. And how can one really tell who is abusing the horses that appear in the ring or not? Time to end this barbaric and unnatural practice once and for all. There is no need for it. What a ridiculous sport, if you can even call it a sport. More like a circus freak show.


    • Thank you pepsi, the horse can not speak and tell us what is painful, but we can help them by reporting and stopping the people that do the abuse, I have stepped up many times, and felt good about it.
      this type of abuse needs to stop.


    • It is illegal, banned 40 years ago. Kudo to Pepsi for pulling their plug. Who is going to enforce laws/bans??? The USDA? HA…good luck with that. The justice dept? yeah right.


    • Why not show the TWH in their natural state where their way of going is a joy to watch.

      The Big Lick TWH’s are ugly…their way of going is so unnatural and disgusting. Wonder how long it takes before their back end breaks down.

      The abuse of these beautiful horses has gone on for way to many years.

      As far as Dr. Stephen Mullins of S.H.O.W., you are a liar and if I could meet you face to face I would tell you so.

      I will never forget the photos of a TWH dead in his stall with 100 ft. of his intestines outside his body.

      These horses deserve better!


  2. Pepsi took the lead and I’m hoping more will follow. Thank you Pepsi! As soon as I find out more sponsors, I will boycott them.


  3. 52 out of 52 horses tested positive for caustic substances on the legs. Ya think it’s pervasive?? Time to ban chains once and for all. Without chains, the chemicals won’t produce that effect.

    And at the same time, get rid of the darn blocks placed under the horses hooves. It looks ridiculous.


  4. “…………”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…………”

    I think it is sad that Dr. Mullins quibbles about equine abuse and just plain “doesn’t get it”! I’m sick and tired of abused, beaten, starved and dead equines because the respective regulatory agencies, law enforcement and courts continue to give slaps on the wrists to some very cruel humans.


    • I agree Dr. Mullins, I know that the 52 out of 52 is bogus as the sniffer picks up fly spray,k show sheen, soap residue from washing the horses etc. We have shown padded horses in the past and did well with out chemicals etc, it can be done and is being done. I have seen you at the shows watching questionable horses in the ring and SHOW and the other HIOs are doing everything possible to help our horses. I wish the other breeds had a watch dog like you and HSUS to take care of them. The video is damning, but that is one trainer and with his conviction which I feel will happen, the other trainers will take note. I agree the pads and 6 oz chain are not the problem, short cuts and poor trainers that train as their fathers did is the problem.
      Thank you for doing an outstanding job..


      • Yeah, sure, great guy that protects the horses and keeps the game squeaky clean……..and I have a bridge for sale in San Francisco, if you’re interested.

        If the guy is so great, why all the names on the USDA “problem children” list? And yes, I realize that it contains more than TWHBA participants.


  5. Time to ban it outright, just like dogfights. Only humans subject other creatures to such pain for their own amusement. Guess we haven’t come that far since our gladiator days.


  6. I wonder how far this will go? More prosecutions? What about the horse owners who hired McConnell to “train?” Oh forgot, “They-had-no-idea ~ ~ .” Of course there should be a Federal look-see, but we have seen how slooooow things happen for horse welfare, like drugs given to race horses, etc. Ok, need to wait & see, for everything is a process and unfolds one way or the other. But thankfully, this torture has been finally exposed! Looking forward to the court hearing next week. May it be the 1st of many.


  7. Stop the Big Lick all together. That will be the answer – invest and promote the natural performance horses. The walking horse is an amazing and stoic animal…they are a joy to ride and to show. I hope that all of the horses in the stable were removed. Perhaps the owner needs some caustic agent on a tender part of his body wrapped in saran wrap for 24 hours… might do the trick to garner some sympathy and understanding.


    • Right on, Mrs. Thompson. I went to shows with TWH 60 years ago and never so that ridiculous, painful looking gait. And their canter now makes you sick!


  8. SICK!!!!!!! This is soooo cruel! These are not human beings because that would imply that they have humanity. It shouldn’t take any more than this video to call a NATION WIDE STOP/BAN be put to this action FOREVER! If one stable does this…they ALL DO IT! Lets not beat around the bush. I’d love to see this treatment done to EVERY person involved. Lets make their feet sore…& put weights & chains on them…& a big stick/bar so I could crack their noses again & again! Stupidity!!! We are supposed to be the caregivers for ALL the worlds animals…not treat them like this.


  9. It is a total shame that those criminals can’t be executed for their crimes against the horses. This would prevent repeat offences and do the world a favor by ridding it of scum that doesn’t even deserve to breath the same air that the horses breath.


  10. Where will it stop? These people want higher and higher steps from these horses. If this is stopped, what will the trainers go to next, to get a higher step? Maybe the people that do this should have a “taste of their own medicine”? Find out what these poor horses feel when they are subjected to this type of treatment? Just saying…It is WRONG on soooo many levels. Way to go PepsiCo!!!!!!!!!!


  11. Half the horses in the ring they showed looked sore to me. Those “big licks” look stupid at least to me. I mean other than Z would do a modified version of it–it looks stupid. Why would judges value something that doesn’t even look part way normal?

    Let the horse do those steps naturally. And don’t ban trainers for a month or show season. Permanent ban, no training, no boarding, no coaching and no ownership of any equine. Period end of story. For life.


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    Jackson Mountains Wild Horses, BLM Photo
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      • redmm97:

        Question: Does this list come with the approval and agreement of the specific breed and/or performance organization?

        Just curious….because those cretins quibble, downplay and don’t do squat within their own organizations, which leads me to believe it is the STANDARD!!!!!!!!!!!!…..from breeding to racing, jumping, show, rodeo, etc. I don’t see any of them making the moral choices. They are more concerned about the humans (owners, breeders, registries, show sponsors, etc) than the athletes.


      • Question: Does this list come with the approval and agreement of the specific breed and/or performance organization?

        This list is directly from USDA inspections at events and shows. Breed associations have no say in any of the suspensions etc.


      • p.s.

        anyone know when the APHIS/FSIS are going to start banging auctions, transporters and KBs for peddling dirty meat for humans?


    • Laura the Big Lick horse can be taught the big lick gait but it takes a very long time….hence the abuse….time means money to the trainers.


  13. My cous just wrote me to tell me she saw this on the news the other night. Made her sick to know “trainers” would do such horrid deeds. But what really impressed her was Pepsi pulling their sponsorship! Tonight I think she’s gonna go out and buy a Pepsi to honor their choice!


  14. OK, BUT! this really bothers me……..

    “….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…..”

    WTH does this REALLY mean for equines? Is it an opportunity to REALLY protect equines or will the money be used for “meat inspections”?

    The second sentence doesn’t make any sense to me…..but I’m an idiot.

    Anyone want to try and explain? I see it as an open door for whacking equines for the meat trade….stupid me.


  15. It is about time somebody spoke up! Yes! Pepsi! Hit them where it hurts_in their pocket. This has gone on sooo long.I remember my mother being threatened 40 years for complaining about the mistreatment of Walking horses. These people are sadistic and do not even know it because it is what they learned by people preceding them.


  16. Well done PepsiCo! What a POS human being!! This goes beyond cruel!! I hope he gets his deserved punishment, if not, I’d be happy to treat him exactly the way he treated the horses. Lowlife ignorant hick!


  17. Thank god this has been brought out!!! I have seen the cruelty to this horrible practice. Thank you Pepsi for dropping the celebration. Maybe now the trainers can no longer buy off the judges, the dqps and all the other ” bigwigs” in the twh world… these poor horses desperately need help.


  18. We’ve seen Tennessee Walkers competing beautifully in eventing in Alberta, without a sign of this bizarre, twisted, perverted “gait” that these horrible people force their horses to exhibit. They jump, canter, gallop, trot – walk, as they’re supposed to do, as they were meant to do by the God that these morons supposedly believe in. Thank you to Pepsi, I might even buy some.

    It’s long past time that the hell these poor animals have been enduring was brought out. I hate that type of public torture that animals are forced to go through. Disgusting human beings, that’s all they are, any chimpanzee has more humanity than these people do. The racetrack has its share of abuse, but at least the horses are free to travel naturally as they were intended to do. The United States should be ashamed – don’t ever criticize another country for animal abuse until you fix this.


  19. Dr. Mullins is full of crap. If he thinks that they have a handle on it, why are we even having this discussion? It has been going on for more than 45 years that I know of and since I no longer attend shows where the TWH’s show, I thought that surely this had been dealt with long ago.

    Obviously, SHOW,TWHA and all of the other associations that govern or enforce proper horsemanship and ethics and humanity have come up short.

    I think any trainer or owner or rider found to be associated with a sored horse in any way should be permanently banned from showing or training or riding from the FIRST OFFENSE. There is no negotiation for cruelty, there should be NO SECOND CHANCES.


  20. After testing don 52 out of 52 had foreign substances found on their legs..that’s 100% people. I’m glad that Pepsi Co pulled funding and hope that the USDA steps up and does their job. They’ve failed so far.


  21. Any idiot who attends these shows, just like any idiot that attends dog fighting matches, deserve to be shot as much as the trainer who does it. You keep it going too. Stupid. Lets torture those men for a while. When they get sent to jail, I will make sure a rumor starts somehow, that they are also child molesters. They will get what is coming to them. Sad. What a sad state the world is in.


  22. Is there anything we won’t do to these inocent animals for profit. And entertainment we have to put a stop to the cruelty


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