Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Allows Convicted Horse Abuser Jackie McConnell to Return While Reform Efforts Continue to Fail

“Allowing McConnell to return is a disgrace that has given both the Celebration and Governor Bill Lee, who attended the event on Saturday night, another black eye.”

By Marty Irby

“I’ll be honest with you, we’ll never get there,” said David L. Howard – then a board director at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration (Celebration) – speaking just after the sentencing of one Jackie McConnell in 2012, following his conviction for felony-level crimes and horse abuse.

While I was no fan of Howard, I must say that in 2021, his words about ending soring – the intentional infliction of pain to Tennessee Walking Horses’ legs and feet by applying caustic chemicals such as kerosene and mustard oil to the skin or inserting sharp objects in the hooves to produce a pain-based gait known as the “Big Lick”— continue to ring true.

But Howard wasn’t the only member of the old guard that shared that pessimistic sentiment. Walt Chism, the current registrar, and past president at the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA), once said to me, “You’ll never stop soring.” When I asked why, he replied: “Because it works.”

Tennessee Walking Horses perform the ‘big lick’ at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Animal Wellness Action.

And after nine years of pressing for the enactment of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, a failed Obama-era U.S. Department of Agriculture regulation, and a potential compromise to end the practice of soring that was defeated last Fall, things in the walking horse industry only seem to be digressing.

If you recall Jackie McConnell, you’ll be reminded of the ABC Nightline expose that my colleague, Wayne Pacelle, authorized. Pacelle’s investigation showed McConnell brutally beating, stewarding, and soring numerous horses, and shocking them in the head with a cattle prod.

In May of 2012, when the story broke, I was in the most difficult position I’d ever encountered as the current president of TWHBEA. McConnell was one of the top world grand champion trainers, and ABC exposed the most gruesome actions I’d ever seen.

My phone buzzed with tons of calls, emails, and questions from reporters, and I knew the Tennessee Walking Horse would never be the same. Many of us reformers in the breed saw a light at the end of the dark abyss we had wanted to change for years. And every major walking horse industry organization banned McConnell from participating in events and the breed for life – including the Celebration.

X-Ray of the ‘stacked shoe’ utilized to produce the ‘big lick’ in Tennessee Walking Horses. Photo Credit courtesy of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

I asked if Pacelle would be willing to come and meet with us, and that August, he joined me and TWHBEA executive director Ron Thomas in Smyrna, Tennessee for a discussion on soring, the expose, and the future of the breed. We decided to band together to end soring for good, and the long-term result of that alliance is the formation of Animal Wellness Action (AWA) where Pacelle and I both work today, still fighting to end the scourge that’s marred the breed since the 1960’s.

Not long after the formation of AWA in 2018, we joined forces with the Citizens’ Campaign Against Big Lick Animal Cruelty (CCABLAC) led by Clant M. Seay, and the family of the late U.S. Senator Joe Tydings, who authored the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970. The strategy we developed saw the U.S. House of Representatives finally pass the renamed PAST Act – the U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act – by a vote of 333 to 96 in July of 2019.

Members of the team that passed the PAST Act through the U.S. House in 2019 at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Left to right: Penny Eastman, Meredith Hou, Marty Irby, Clant M. Seay, Holly Gann, Wayne Pacelle, Gina Garey, and Jennifer Skiff. Photo courtesy of Animal Wellness Action.

But in the Senate, almost every animal bill has to secure Unanimous Consent, a target we can’t hit as long as Senators from Tennessee and Kentucky continue to oppose the PAST Act. In light of that political reality, we sat down with leaders within the breed, and worked to forge a compromise that would end soring for good. The HPA has proved too weak, and we need fortification of the law so we can finally end this cruelty.

The compromise effort garnered support from Monty Roberts, “The Man Who Listens to Horses,” the Tydings’ family, SPCA International, and dozens of equine and animal protection groups. The effort built steam but failed to secure the support of Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. – one of the PAST Act’s lead sponsors – before the end of the Congress last December, and the compromise was not brought forward for a vote in the Senate.

While the old PAST Act was reintroduced again this year by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Ida., and Warner, it’s simply a messaging bill at this stage in the game and will continue to be blocked with no end in sight.

Now, with nearly all efforts exhausted to reform the breed, and amidst protests of the Big Lick at the Celebration, Jackie McConnell has returned to the event in 2021, according to BillyGoBoy.com. Allowing McConnell to return is a disgrace that has given both the Celebration and Governor Bill Lee, who attended the event on Saturday night, another black eye. The Celebration should uphold its lifetime ban on McConnell and go further to ban the use of large-stacked shoes and ankle chains, that have perpetuated the six-decade-long scourge of soring, at the event. As one of the largest USDA certified inspection programs in the breed, the Celebration’s SHOW HIO has the power to eradicate these gruesome devices and prevent abusers like McConnell from attending their event.

Far right: Jackie McConnell at the 2021 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. Photo by Clant M. Seay, BillyGoBoy.com.

The failure of our compromise to be enacted last year is regrettable, but we hope that stakeholders, as well as Members of the House and Senate will come together, put the welfare of the horse first, and work to secure meaningful reforms. Until then, horses will continue to be sored indefinitely.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association who was honored in 2020 by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II for his work to end soring. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook @MartyIrby.