Jan. 1, 2013 -- This week, the Blotter is reprising five different Brian Ross Unit investigations that made a difference in 2012. Today: The ugly truth behind high-stepping horses.
Tennessee Walking Horses are famed for their high-stepping gait, and the horses that step highest earn top marks from judges at the Walking Horse Celebration, a championship held each year in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
But an ABC News investigation found that large numbers of the horses have been tortured and beaten to produce that dancing gait, and that the abuse includes a painful practice called "soring," in which caustic chemicals are smeared on the animals' ankles.
"All too often, you have to cheat to win in this sport," said Keith Dane of the Humane Society of the United States.
Undercover video shot by an investigator for the Humane Society and broadcast by ABC News documented the cruelty of one of the sport's leading trainers, Jackie McConnell of Collierville, Tennessee, who would later plead guilty to violating the Horse Protection Act.
The tape shows McConnell and his stable hands beating horses with wooden sticks, using electric cattle prods on the animals and "soring" their ankles – wrapping them in plastic and caustic chemicals.
The investigative unit aired the video publicly for the first time, and confronted McConnell and other leaders of the sport about why such practices have been tolerated .
Impact: On the day of the ABC News broadcast, Pepsi Co dropped its longtime sponsorshop of the annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration. Shortly afterwards, two of the country's leading veterinary groups joined forces to push Congress for better protection of the horses. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practioners both began urging politicians to ban the use of "action devices" – chains and pads that are often used in conjunction with the chemicals that "sore" the horses' ankles.
Leaders of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry maintain that such brutality is rare and that trainers do not have to cheat to win championships. But after the ABC News report, organizers of the annual championship agreed to the testing of each horse by USDA veterinarians for "soring" chemicals or numbing agents, and implemented a "five point inspection process" and implemented a "five point inspection process" that includes x-rays, thermal imaging and a manual test for soreness.