May 31, 2012 -- After speaking out to ABC News about what he called "torture for the sake of a blue ribbon" in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, the director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States is facing possible expulsion from the board of the sport's breeders association.
Keith Dane has been told to appear before the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA) enforcement committee to answer a complaint filed against him by a fellow association member in the wake of the ABC News' "Nightline" investigation. Dane is a Tennessee Walking Horse owner and trainer and a TWHBEA board member.
The member who filed the complaint, Kathy Zeis, did not respond to requests for comment.
Marty Irby, president of the TWHBEA, said Zeis paid an undisclosed fee to file the complaint, but would not explain the nature of the grievance.
Dane's hearing is scheduled for June 28. "If the hearing goes forward, I intend to fully respond to and defend against the complaint," Dane told ABC News.
"It is shocking that anyone within this industry would even suggest that there be retaliatory or disciplinary action against a Humane Society official and horseman who blew the whistle on Jackie McConnell, who has now pled guilty to felony charges of horse abuse," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "It suggests that there's still an attitude within the fraternity that anyone who breaks the code of silence on horse soring must be excommunicated. These people have it backwards, and they also need some lessons in crisis management."
Undercover video made by an investigator for the Humane Society documented the cruelty of one of the sport's leading trainers, Jackie McConnell, who has since been banned for life by the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration (the sport's most high-profile championship). The video showed McConnell and his employees beating horses with wooden sticks, shocking them with electric cattle prods, and "soring" (applying caustic chemicals to the ankles of the horses), techniques apparently employed to make the horses produce the high-stepping gait that wins championships in the Tennessee Walking Horse world.
McConnell, 60, also pleaded guilty to one federal count related to a violation of the Horse Protection Act.
Since the "Nightline" investigation, the nature of the sport has come under intense criticism, with calls to clean up an industry that insiders say has long known about the prevalent use of illegal, abusive training techniques.
"The fact is that 'soring,' the technique of using chemicals and chains to give walking horses the exaggerated gait or "big lick" to win championships, was used for years -- with industry leaders closing their eyes to keep the almighty dollar flowing," an editorial in the local Murfreesboro Daily News said this week.
The Tennessean also reported that eight of the last 10 "Trainers of the Year," as awarded by the Walking Horse Trainers' Association, have been suspended for soring at least once in their careers.
"It's sort of a world unto its own and there are a lot of well-kept secrets in it," Dane told ABC News. "All too often, you have to cheat to win in this sport."