May 22, 2012 -- One of the leading trainers in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry admitted today that he abused horses under his care to enhance their performance, but may face no jail time despite pleading guilty to a felony.
Jackie McConnell, 60, pleaded guilty to one federal count related to the conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act, a week after an ABC News "Nightline" investigation aired undercover video made by the Humane Society of the United States that showed McConnell and his employees beating horses with wooden sticks, shocking them with electric cattle prods, and applying caustic chemicals to their ankles.
McConnell could have faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced in September, but as part of his plea deal prosecutors have agreed to recommend a sentence of probation. "[C]urrent federal sentencing guidelines ... would place McConnell in a sentencing zone likely to result in a sentence of probation, or service of six months or less in federal custody," said the U.S. Attorney's office in a statement. "McConnell's federal probationary sentence will form the basis of an action to remove him from horse competition."
He had been charged with 52 counts in violation of the Horse Protection Act, but pleaded guilty to only one in a plea agreement with prosecutors. Two of his stable hands, John Mays and Joseph Abernathy, also pleaded guilty to one count and face up to one year in prison and a $3,000 fine. Another employee and co-defendant, Jeff Dockery, has yet to enter a plea.
The alleged torture was apparently employed to make the horses produce the high-stepping gait that wins championships in the Tennessee Walking Horse world.
"That creates intense pain and then the ankles are wrapped with large metal chains so the horses flinch, or raise their feet even higher," said Keith Dane of the Humane Society.
In addition to the application of the harmful chemicals, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee said McConnell also "took steps to camouflage the damage to the horses by instructing others to apply magic markers and other masking devices to the horses' legs prior to inspection."
Following the "Nightline" investigation, the Walking Horse Trainers Association suspended McConnell's training license indefinitely.
Last week, ABC News approached McConnell outside his home about the abuse allegations but he declined to comment.
After the undercover video made by the Humane Society came to light, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General and FBI then followed up with their own investigation at McConnell's farm in Collierville, Tennessee, and at a temporary stable closer to the location of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration exhibition in Shelbyville.
Last week, ABC News found all but one horse had been removed from McConnell's Collierville stable.