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Horse trainer Jackie McConnell fined for caustic chemical cruelty

Jake Daniels / AP

Keith Dane, center, representative for the Humane Society of the United States, and Joe Tydings, right, a former senator from Maryland who authored the original Horse Protection Act in 1970, speak to the media on the steps of the federal courthouse, Tuesday.

NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- Former Tennessee walking horse hall of fame trainer Jackie McConnell was fined $75,000 and sentenced to three years’ probation in federal court on Tuesday for using a banned and abusive practice on show horses that involving putting caustic chemicals on their ankles.

McConnell faced 52 counts of transporting and showing abused horses and had pleaded guilty in May to a single charge of animal cruelty in an agreement with prosecutors that called for probation and a fine.

U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice Jr. accepted McConnell's plea, imposing the fine, which could have been up to $250,000, and probation at a federal court hearing in Chattanooga on Tuesday. McConnell faced up to five years in prison if the agreement had not been accepted.

McConnell was required by the court to write a letter about the soring of horses, the pain it causes and the long-term effects, The Chattanoogan said. He was also asked to say how widespread soring is in the letter.

McConnell was banned for life from the Tennessee Walking Horse organization's biggest event and stricken from its hall of fame along with written and photographic mentions after ABC News showed the video in May of him abusing horses.

Secretly filmed
The federal charges stemmed from a banned practice called "soring" in which the front legs of walking horses, known for their high-stepping gait or “big lick,” are slathered with caustic chemicals to induce pain that causes them to kick even higher.

An animal rights activist working undercover in a horse barn secretly recorded McConnell and some colleagues abusing horses in March and April 2011. The video was used as a basis for the prosecution.

The video showed horses being beaten with wooden sticks and poked with electric cattle prods. The horses' ankles were covered with caustic chemicals and then wrapped with plastic to increase their pain.

Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said he wanted a tougher sentence but that McConnell's case still would send a message that soring would not be tolerated.

"It was our hope that McConnell would do prison time for these terrible crimes but there are gaps in the federal law that need to be strengthened," Dane said.

On its website, the Human Society said a federal bill had been been introduced by Representatives Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, and Steve Cohen, a Democract from Tennessee, that would amend the Horse Protection Act "to end the failed system of industry self-policing, ban the use of certain devices, strengthen penalties, and make other needed reforms to finally end this torture."

YouTube/Humane Society of United States

NOTE: Contains graphic footage. A video made by the Humane Society of the United States after an undercover investigation into the walking horse industry, posted to YouTube.

Dane told The Chattanoogan that McConnell "has shown no remorse. For decades his income was based on the torture of horses."

Former Senator Joseph Tydings, the sponsor of the Horse Protection Act in 1970, told the paper that horse owners in Tennessee and Kentucky had for decades "tortured horses by altering them with a phony gait that is based on violent cruelty to the horses. In Tennessee, the officials have known what is going on, but they have done nothing about this ‘big lick.’”

"It's been about the culture, the money, the celebration. They don't give a d*** about the poor horses,” he added.

Two other men pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in the case and were sentenced to probation as well.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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