Pepsi drops the "Big Lick"

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  June 2012:

Pepsi drops the “Big Lick”

SHELBYVILLE,  Tennessee-– Walking horse trainers are still trying to force horses into taking the “big lick,”  the equine equivalent of a goosestep,  but Pepsi will no longer be paying the Walking Horse National Celebration to associate the “big lick” with Pepsi beverages.

A sponsor of the Walking Horse National Celebration since 2010,  Pepsi had paid $25,000 per year for exclusive rights to sell an estimated $50,000 worth of soft drinks during the event.  Pepsi dropped support of the prestigious “big lick” show on May 17,  2012, less than 24 hours after the ABC News programs Night-line  and Good Morning America aired videotape obtained by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the U.S. showing extensive abuse of horses at Whittier Stables in Collierville.  

The Whittier Stables owner is walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell. The 2012 Walking Horse National Celebration is scheduled for August 22 to September 1.  “We have ended our sponsorship of the event,”  said Pepsi spokesperson Vincent Bozek,  offering no further specifics.

“Neither Pepsi nor officials of the horse show would confirm the reason for the cancellation,”  reported Tim Ghianni of Reuters.  “But an expert on the Tennessee walking horse show circuit,  who asked not to be identified,  said he believed it was because of the ABC News report,  which showed an abusive practice known as ‘soring.'”

Elaborated Duane W. Gang of the Nashville Tennessean, “Inside a West Tennessee barn,  the horses were whipped and beaten. Trainers dragged them by their heads.  Some were kicked.  Chemicals were dripped on their ankles,  which were then bound tightly with plastic wrap.  It was all done in an effort to accentuate the well-known high leg kick of the Tennessee walking horse,”  by forcing them,  “because of pain,  to lift their legs higher when they walk.”

As well as being sored to produce the “big lick” goose-step, the horses were reportedly trained to resist flinching when their legs and hooves were handled by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspectors.

Ex-Hall of Famer

The HSUS investigator produced the video in 2011 during a seven-week stint as a stable hand.   HSUS shared the video with USDA-APHIS,  which has responsibility for enforcing the Horse Protection Act.  The video was released to ABC more than six weeks after McConnell,  60,  and alleged co-conspirators Jeff Dockery,  54, John Mays,  50,  and Joseph R. Abernathy,  30,  were charged in a 52-count federal indictment.  The alleged co-conspirators were employees of McConnell.

“In a notice filed in federal court,  McConnell stated he intends to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to violate the HPA.  The notice stated that federal prosecutors intend to move for dismissal of all remaining charges,”  wrote Brian Mosely of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette on May 11,  2012.  McConnell’s codefendants reportedly accepted similar deals.

McConnell,  60,  had reportedly already been suspended for five years from exhibiting horses at events inspected by USDA-APHIS, due to past violations of a similar nature,  and had not exhibited horses at the Walking Horse National Celebration since 2007.  The Tennessee Walking Horse Trainers Association on May 17,  2012 revoked McConnell’s license to exhibit,   reported Duane W. Gang and Heidi Hall of the Tennessean.

On May 23,  2012 McConnell was banned for life from the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration,  and was evicted from membership in the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Hall of Fame,  added Scott Stroud of the Tennessean. “A review of records by the Tennessean found that McConnell had a history of civil [i.e. not criminal] violations dating back to 1979,”  wrote Stroud.  The crackdown on McConnell came soon after walking horse trainer Barney Davis, 39,  of Lewisburg, Tennessee on February 28, 2012 became the first walking horse trainer in 20 years to be criminally convicted of violations of the Horse Protection Act.

Pleading guilty to conspiracy to violate the HPA,  transporting and entering a sored horse into a show,  and conspiring to commit witness tampering,  Davis was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $4,000 by U.S. District Judge Harry “Sandy” Mattice. “Every walking horse that enters into a show is sored,” Davis told Judge Mattice. “They’ve got to be sored to walk.  There ain’t no good way to put it,  but that’s how it is.”

Reported Todd South of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, “Davis’ co-defendants–Christen Altman,  26,  of Shelby-ville,  and
Jeffery Bradford,  33,  of Lewis-burg–each received one year of probation and $1,000 fines.  A fourth co-defendant,  Paul Blackburn, 35,  was sentenced to one year on probation and a $1,000 fine in January.”

Disrespect of law

Added South,  “The allegations of widespread horse abuse,” recited by Davis,  “astounded Mattice,  who likened the abuse to cockfighting.  If the practice is as pervasive as Davis described, Mattice said,  Congress has promoted disrespect for the law by criminalizing the conduct but not enforcing it.”

Recalled South,  “Former U.S. Senator Joe Tydings of Maryland wrote the Horse Protection Act and submitted it to become law in 1968.  The lifelong equestrian and member of the last U.S. Army horse cavalry unit was disgusted when he learned of the practice” of soring walking horses.   “Tydings lost re-election to the Senate in 1970, shortly after the bill became law,”  South continued.  “He went on to work as a private lawyer and only learned decades later that his bill had been funded by only 500,000 annually and had not received a budget increase since the 1970s until last year,  when funding rose to about $700,000.”

With the additional funding,  USDA-APHIS visited 83 horse shows in 2011,  up from about 50 in 2010,  out of about 450 shows held per year.  Among 11,638 horses examined,  683 soring violations were found– a violation rate of about 6%,  afflicting lightly more than one horse in 20.

Walking horse industry spokespersons argued,  contrary to Davis’ testimony,  that the violations were rare and aberrant. But friends of Sound Horses found that “Eight of the last 10 winners of the Trainer of the Year award from the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association have been suspended for soring at least once,” Duane W. Gong and Brian Wilson of The Tennessean reported.

Recurring pattern

Hall noted a recurring pattern in walking horse exhibition: “Someone exposes soring,  a local scandal ensues,  then business as usual resumes.  In 2006,”  Hall remembered,  “the Walking Horse National Celebration canceled the Grand Champion contest after USDA investigators disqualified seven of 10 horses for soring violations.”  Three years later,  Hall continued,  “The celebration assembled the inspection agency SHOW–an acronym for sound horses, honest judging, objective inspections, winning fairly–to self-regulate the trainers. It fired nine inspectors from a former [industry] group.  A check of USDA Horse Protection Act violations for 2010-11 reveals that SHOW issued more citations to Shelbyville trainers than any other horse industry organization.  Citations from USDA veterinarians at the Celebration dropped from 13.5% of horses in 2009 to 1% in 2011,”  Celebration chief executive Doyle Meadows told Hall.

But SHOW president Stephen Mullins,  DVM,  noted that the number of shows contracting for SHOW inspections has dropped since 2009 from more than 150 to fewer than 100. “The group keeps running on money from the Celebration–$750,000 over three years,”  Hall wrote.  “The Celebration brings an estimated $41 million in direct spending to Shelbyville.  Harder to quantify are the millions more that walking horse owners and their employees contribute indirectly.  The industry is Bedford County’s number one sales tax generator,”  county mayor Eugene Ray said.

Sought “ag-gag”

Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Richard Locker observed that “Two West Tennessee state legislators tried to pass a bill this year that would have made it a crime to conduct the kind of undercover investigation that produced the video of horse abuse” that brought McConnell’s guilty plea.  “The bill was filed in January 2012 by state senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville),   and representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden),  and appeared en route to passage in the Senate until it ran into opposition in a House subcommittee and died for the year.”

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