Prominent horse trainer pleads guilty to federal charge involving soring

CHATTANOOGA — A well-known Tennessee Walking Horse trainer pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy to defraud the United States in a case that involved soring of horses.

Jackie McConnell, 60, entered his guilty plea in federal court alongside two of his employees, John Mays, 47, and Joseph Abernathy, 29.

All three probably will be placed on probation for up to six months due to a plea agreement and recommendations of the U.S. attorney's office.

The charge against McConnell is considered a felony because he conspired to submit fraudulent paperwork. Because of his age, prosecutors have recommended probation.

Mays is in federal custody for not reporting to his probation officer, one of his bond conditions. He and Abernathy pleaded to the same charge, but it was categorized as a federal misdemeanor. They admitted knowingly transporting and exhibiting sored horses.

The men were charged in a 52-count indictment that listed violations of the federal Horse Protection Act. Another McConnell employee, Jeff Dockery, 56, also charged was.

Dockery has a plea of not guilty listed in court records.

Prosecutors allege that the men sored horses to enter them into Tennessee Walking Horse competitions. McConnell has trained horses for more than three decades, producing some champions. He was named trainer of the year in 1986 by the national Walking Horse Trainers Association.

Soring is an illegal practice sometimes involving mechanical and chemical damage to the horse's feet with such items as kerosene and metal bolts. The abusive methods alter the natural high-stepping gait of the horse to achieve a coveted "big lick" step, which often helps trainers win competitions.

Last week, the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video footage by one of the association's agents that allegedly shows McConnell and others soring horses. The footage was entered as evidence in the case.