The Celebration Board of Directors took decisive action Tuesday afternoon, condemning the actions of walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges related to the conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act.
The Celebration Board voted Tuesday to suspend McConnell for life from entering the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Grounds for any and all events, regardless of the event's affiliation or ownership.
"This is the strongest action we can take and it clearly reflects our disgust with the actions of Mr. McConnell," said Dr. Doyle Meadows, Celebration CEO. "His actions are not reflective of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, and we in no way want him associated with our show."
McConnell, who was shown abusing horses in an undercover video released last week by the Humane Society of the United States, faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine at his sentencing, which has been set for 9 a.m. Sept. 10.
However, it was also reported by other sources late Tuesday that as part of the plea agreement, prosecutors are recommending McConnell be given probation due to his age and health. The acceptance of that plea deal will be up to U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice, Jr. at McConnell's sentencing hearing.
The Board also voted to permanently remove McConnell's name from the list of Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Hall of Fame inductees.
"Any picture, plaque, image or other mention of his name from Hall of Fame data will be permanently removed from this day forward and his name will be forever erased from Hall of Fame rolls," according to a statement released by The Celebration.
All pictures and signage on the Celebration grounds carrying either the name of McConnell or likeness will also be permanently removed. Furthermore, he is "banned from entry onto the TWHNC grounds (with) any horse under the custodianship or presumed to be under the custodianship of Mr. McConnell."
Local leaders have also spoken out this week, denouncing McConnell for his actions while asserting their support for the industry and the effort it has made to make soring an issue of the past.
"The key thing is that we in no way have supported or condoned the harming of horses and anyone that does that should be banned from ever showing a horse," said Walt Wood, Shelbyville-Bedford County Chamber CEO, adding that SHOW, the Celebration-sanctioned industry horse industry organization responsible for self-policing the industry, has done its job of enforcing the Horse Protection Act.
"The Celebration formed SHOW as an (organization) to sanction horse shows and to (do the inspections), and they are doing a good job ... the national media has not recognized that or given any credit to that ... We cannot tolerate the mistreatment of horses and it's a different day now than it was 30 years ago."
State Rep. Pat Marsh, who also sits on the Celebration Board of Directors, said Tuesday he's proud to be a part of the walking horse industry and has full confidence in the industry, adding McConnell was one of a "few bad apples."
"My opinion of (this) is that soring has happened and I think it still goes on somewhat but I don't think it's near as bad as it used to be," Marsh said. "The Celebration, by starting SHOW, (has) gotten very, very serious to finally get these guys to stop soring. (Dr. Steve) Mullins has done a tremendous job ... We've shown that we are serious."
Looking forward, Marsh said the industry needs to continuing weeding out any trainer who may still sore horses.
"If we all quit, and all the horses are good, compliant and healthy -- if we can keep this industry intact and from going under -- shows will be better than ever.
"(Right now) it's not fun for anyone anymore. Owners are not happy, trainers are not making money, and fans aren't happy because they never know what to expect."
Marsh also said the industry is essential for the Bedford County and Middle Tennessee Community.
"I think all the good that (will) come out of this more than outweighs the bad," he said. "... (The show) is our claim to fame, and I'm proud to be connected with it."