An undercover investigation into animal abuse in the Walking Horse industry is only "the tip of the iceberg," a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) told the T-G.
Late last week, a 52-count federal indictment alleging a conspiracy to sore horses was unsealed against prominent trainer Jackie L. McConnell, 60, along with employees Jeff Dockery, 54, John Mays, 50, all from Collierville, and Joseph R. Abernathy, 30, of Olive Branch, Miss.
The four are charged with conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act by transporting and showing horses they knew to be "sored" and also falsifying entry forms and paperwork.
Out of the 52 counts, 18 are felonies and if convicted, the four face a maximum term of three years for each felony count and up to one year in prison for each misdemeanor.
It was a seven-week secret examination of McConnell's west Tennessee facility by the Humane Society that led to the arrests last Thursday.
A nonprofit, charitable organization, the HSUS is funded by membership dues, contributions, foundation grants, and bequests. It receives a small amount of federal money in support of particular programs. The HSUS is the largest animal advocacy in the world.
The indictment was the result of an investigation by the USDA's Office of Inspector General and the FBI.
"This is not a one-off, isolated incident, this is a leading trainer who has horses that one of which was considered as a leading contender for the World Grand Championship last year," Keith Dane, director of Equine Protection for HSUS told the T-G. "This is not a backyard amateur, this is a seasoned, career-long professional who has a chronic history of violating the Horse Protection Act."
"This is just the tip of the iceberg, we believe, to what is going on in the industry," he said.
A Monday afternoon call by T-G to Jackie McConnell Stables in Collierville was not returned prior to press time Tuesday.
Dane said that HSUS has been working with the USDA and different horse industry organizations to "try to effect change and bring this problem to light" by making the public more aware of abuse in the horse business. Dane is also the Maryland director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association.
"We really felt it was necessary to show that this is a systematic process that goes on in training barns and is used to produce the 'big lick' gait," Dane stated.
The "big lick" is the exaggerated, high-stepping gait that is part of what judges look for in judging performance horses.
HSUS also assisted authorities with the removal of horses from McConnell's training operation after the arrest last week.
He also characterized McConnell as "one of many leading trainers who have been successful over the years and have had a series of Horse Protection Act violations," also pointing out that McConnell had been on a five-year suspension by the USDA when their investigation was underway at his barn.
Dane said they knew there were horses being shown that had been trained and ridden by McConnell before his federal disqualification in 2006, and "we suspected he was continuing to train and get horses into the ring" while on suspension.
He added that McConnell's facility was "one of several trainers ... training establishments, that we identified that we would try to get an inside look as to what was going on." When asked if HSUS was looking at any locations in Bedford County, Dane only said he "couldn't say at this time."
"We have a list of training barns in Tennessee and in other states that have histories of Horse Protection Act violations and may be candidates for further research and investigation in the future," Dane said.
Dane told the T-G that their investigator was in McConnell's barn "for about seven weeks" last spring and "documented several things that are consistent in the indictment."
The federal indictment details a number of alleged soring incidents occurring between March and May of 2011, which Dane explained arose from their investigation of McConnell's barn.
One series of incidents referred to in the indictment detailed the alleged treatment of the horse "Sweet-N-Loco," which "had great difficulty rising in her stall due to the pain in her feet," the indictment claimed.
A "blue cream chemical" was brushed on the horse's front pasterns on several dates in April and in May 2011, according to the indictment, "McConnell rode the horse as part of its training, and the horse stumbled badly and walked unnaturally after being ridden."
According to a press release from HSUS detailing the alleged abuse, they also documented horses being "whipped, kicked, shocked in the face and violently cracked across the heads and legs with heavy wooden sticks."
"In some cases, their tails were mutilated with scissors and blades in order to make them appear flashier in the show ring -- leaving behind untreated bleeding wounds," it read. They also claim that during their investigation, a young filly named Master Streaker "was so painfully sore that McConnell himself referred to her as 'paralyzed.'"
After HSUS completed their investigation, Dane said they presented their findings to the Justice Department and the Office of Inspector General for the USDA, taking the information "and developed the case further from there."
More evidence was gathered in September of last year when federal authorities executed a search warrant on a barn in Bedford County, Dane explained. "Our investigator's documentation was significant in determining there was a reason to proceed with the case," he said.
At this point, all of the evidence in HSUS' investigation of McConnell has been turned over to federal authorities.
Not only did abuse allegedly occur in Collierville, but in Shelbyville as well during the Trainers Show, the Fun Show and the Celebration, Dane said.
Dane explained they hoped that the indictment of McConnell, as well as the case last year involving trainer Barney Davis "will get people demanding that change be made, both within the industry and also with enforcement of federal and state law."
"This will serve as a deterrent and a wake-up call to the industry that this is still going on and it can be exposed and it needs to change," Dane explained, adding that the "door was open" to further investigations.
"As long as there is animal cruelty going on, we will continue to do whatever we need to do to bring it to an end," he said.