Walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell has been sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $US75,000 for horse soring.
The sentence was handed down today by US District Judge Harry “Sandy” Mattice in federal court in Chattanooga.
McConnell,60, faced sentence for one admitted breach of the Horse Protection Act, which was the first charge in a 52-count indictment laid against McConnell.
The charges arose after undercover video emerged of McConnell and others soring horses.
McConnell admitted the first count as part of a plea deal in which he would avoid jail.
He must report all his dealings with horses in federal court.
Two employees of McConnell’s stable in Collierville, Joseph Abernathy,30, and Jeff Dockery, 54, were also sentenced for their role in the abuse of horses. Each was sentenced to a year of probation. Neither was fined, but they were ordered by the judge to write an article on horse soring.
Soring is illegal under the 42-year-old Horse Protection Act. It involves the deliberate use of chemical or mechanical irritants to sensitize the lower legs of horses to encourage the higher gait so desirable in the walking horse industry.
McConnell has already been banned for life from the grounds of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and has been removed from its hall of fame.
McConnell, who pleaded guilty in May to conspiring to violate the Horse Protection Act, told the court that he took responsibility for his actions.
Assistant United States Attorney Steven Neff had earlier filed a 16-page document explaining the plea deal made with McConnell ahead of the sentencing.
Neff said while the government recognised the public outcry and desire to see significant jail time against violators of the Horse Protection Act (HPA), the sad reality was that the law did not possess significant teeth in the form of statutory maximum punishments and sentencing guideline calculations.
Neff said the charge admitted by McConnell was the most serious offense with which the defendant was charged.
He noted that the maximum punishment for the offense is five years imprisonment, three years supervised release, a $US250,000 fine and any lawful restitution.
The parties, however, entered into a plea arrangement, agreeing that probation rather than imprisonment was appropriate in the case.
“The recommendation for probation rather than imprisonment does not mean that the United States supports a sentence inadequate to address the seriousness of the crimes with which the defendant was charged or the acts which support the factual basis to which he agreed.
“The United States’ position is that a significant sentence to the extent permitted by law, within the confines of the defendant’s guilty plea, is both warranted and appropriate given the defendant’s long-term defiance of federal law.”
Neff noted that McConnell had significant assets, as the pre-sentence report listed his total net worth as over $US2.2 million.
He noted that McConnell had offended while under a disqualification ordered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the very types of acts which are the subject of the criminal case.
Neff said that, until recently, the defendant’s crimes were little-known and regarded, and rarely enforced.
“He operated in an environment in which leaders of the gaited horse communities ‘circled the wagons’ and protected those engaged in a culture of abusing horses and engaging in fraud.
“Due to a lack of resources and the inability to engage in meaningful enforcement measures, administrative procedures established by the government did little to curb the practice of soring horses to produce the ‘big lick’ gait valued by judges of gaited horse competitions.
“The practice of fraudulently identifying trainers of the horses involved in the competitions became rampant as the defendant and others in the industry attempted to shield themselves from the administrative consequences that did exist for transporting, entering, and showing horses which had been sored.
“The defendant’s history of violating the Horse Protection Act dates back to 1979 and includes four periods of disqualification resulting from violations of the Horse Protection Act.
“Despite repeated citations, fines, a five-year USDA disqualification, and multiple horse industry organization imposed suspensions, the defendant has continued his long-standing practice of soring horses in violation of the Horse Protection Act.
“Most recently, he had his trainer’s license suspended from October 2006 through October 2011. Despite this suspension, he was cited for violating his suspension and fined in 2009.
“However, the defendant continued to train horses for other individuals, using illegal methods of soring such as applying caustic chemicals to horses’ pasterns, as well as committing various acts of animal cruelty under Tennessee law.
“Not only did he commit these acts, but the defendant directed others to violate the law and oversaw a criminal enterprise centered on so doing.
“Evidence of his actions was captured via video recordings.
“Additionally, two horses brought by the defendant to the National Walking Horse Celebration, held in late August through early September, 2011, were disqualified after being found to have been sored in violation of the Horse Protection Act.
“A federal search warrant was executed at the staging barn owned by one of the defendant’s horse-owning clients and used by the defendant during the Celebration, which yielded numerous chemicals that have been laboratory analyzed and determined to contain mustard oil and hydrocarbons consistent with kerosene or diesel fuel – all substances prohibited under the Horse Protection Act and used to cause painful burns on horses’ legs.
“The legs of all twelve horses transported to the Celebration by the defendant were swabbed, laboratory analyzed, and tested positive for chemicals prohibited by the Horse Protection Act.
“Furthermore, during an animal welfare inspection of the defendant’s barn on March 1, 2012, eight of the 26 horses inspected by a USDA veterinary medical officer and an independent equine veterinarian were found to be sore by both veterinarians.
“A search of a dumpster behind the defendant’s barn had yielded numerous plastic wrappings emitting a strong chemical odor consistent in type and smell with wrappings removed from the horses he had trained and entered into the Celebration that tested positive for prohibited chemicals the previous August.
“The dumpster also contained numerous hypodermic syringes similar in type to those used to administer painkillers to horses.
“These syringes had volumes too small for the administration of other commonly used drugs such as antibiotics. Analgesics are given to sored horses to mask pain responses and to conceal the soring itself during inspection.
“A search of the defendant’s truck revealed a set of grossly overweight leg chains, also called “action devices,” that had recently been used and were still covered in grease.
“These facts indicate that the defendant continued his 30-year practice of soring horses and took steps to conceal his criminal activities.”
Neff said wealthy and influential owners like some of those who patronized the defendant’s training business for a long period of time knew or should have known that he was utilizing soring practices.
“This would have been self-evident from the large number of violations reflected in the administrative tickets and suspensions that he, his employees, and the owners themselves received for soring over the duration of the period in which he trained their horses.
“Nevertheless, they continued to pay him large amounts of money to continue the training even while he was federally disqualified from doing so.
“This demonstrates that the acceptance of soring is so steeped in the culture of gaited horse competitions by owners that it is perfectly acceptable to violate federal law in order to get ribbons and trophies and make significant profits from the sale of championship horses and breeding fees, despite the fact that many of the horses won because trainers like the defendant cheated.
“The purchase and resale of Tennessee Walking Horses, therefore, is fraught with fraud when based upon results which are skewed because they are artificially-enhanced and not the product of the natural abilities of the horses.
“The individuals who purchase these horses, therefore, would be victims of fraud themselves unless they were aware of the illegal training practices.
“The reach of soring so permeates the industry that it has become extremely difficult to find an equine veterinarian in Tennessee to testify about soring practices, lest he alienate his clientele who follow these practices of soring and lose their business.
“The end result is that soring continues unabated, and its victims – the horses – are paying an enormous price.”
Neff noted that the probationary sentence would see McConnell lose his right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, possess a firearm or ammunition and other related privileges of US citizenship.
“These formal consequences exist in addition to the ‘unofficial’ consequences the defendant faces such as loss of reputation and respect in the community.
“The defendant’s life work, business, reputation, and accolades have all been stripped as a result of this prosecution and his guilty plea.”
Neff had urged the court to impose a heavy fine.
He said the prosecution of McConnell and others, along with the publicity surrounding the release of the undercover video produced by the Humane Society of the United States and used as evidence in this case, had helped expose the widespread cruelty against Tennessee Walking Horses and opened the eyes of the nation to the problem for one of the first times since the statute was enacted in 1970.
“That resulted in several consequences, including the withdrawal of major corporate sponsors, disruption of ill-gotten financial gains based on violations of the law, and the beginnings of a halt to the illegal practices of soring.
“There has also been discussion that state and federal legislators are discussing strengthening the existing laws.”