“Virtue has never been as respectable as money.”
Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad
The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently overturned a lower state court’s ruling that the Sherman Family of Texas and Tennessee should get two horses back, seized when Whitter Stables, owned and operated by Jackie McConnell, was raided. The case has now been referred to a trial court. You may be wondering how the Shermans can assert that as owners they were merely innocent bystanders in McConnell’s physical and mental abuse of their horses.
The Shermans maintain, through their lawyers, that their horses were seized, and have since been held improperly, because they themselves weren’t personally involved in cruelty like dousing them in mustard oil, wrapping them in plastic wrap over chemical treatments, hitting horses in the head with ax handles, and stewarding them to pass mandatory horse show inspections to detect soring. Everything is bigger in Texas and that apparently includes gall.
People all over the world watched and are still watching ABC’s Nightline with the video of an HSUS undercover investigation featuring the Shermans’ Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell, already serving, at the time of the investigation, a federal suspension for having sored horses, at work. That means that they also saw the sort of treatment that was dished out to the Shermans’ horses. They saw beatings, chemicals applied, miserable animals either unable to get up or to stand upright because of the pain that they were in, and an electric shock stick used to move a horse forward. In one section of the video, a denizen of Whitter is heard describing a horse, almost with a chuckle, as pretty near crippled.
Nightline was a game changer in the years long attempts to end the soring of walking horses. It opened the window wide on the shadowy practices found in one of the "better" training barns in the big lick world. It also changed how the “rights of ownership of property “ of supposedly respectable people, asserting that they love and care for their horses yet put them in a horrific situation, should be viewed.
Mr. McConnell is now a convicted felon, subjected to hefty fines and prohibited from owning a horse for the next 20 years. What he did was unconscionable, but there’s more to it than that. He wasn’t just hurting his private horses; he was torturing horses he was well paid to train for others. In the case of the case of the Shermans, they had paid him handsomely for many years. The Shermans and the McConnells had, it should be said, a shared history that included a Celebration World Grand Champion title, the ultimate prize in their strange, small world. Then came the raid; then the State of Tennessee got involved with cruelty charges and a forfeiture case after the feds finished its piece of the puzzle.
The State of Tennessee is attempting to have the Shermans’ horses forfeited because of their involvement in illegal activity. The two animals have been in the care of the HSUS since the seizure. The organization has paid for maintenance, security, vet bills, and for rehabilitation during the more than three years that legal proceedings have been ongoing in this case. While the Shermans have been fighting to get the horses back, they continued to show others on the same circuit. They are missing two of their show string but there are others back at the barns.
What kind of people could, and would, knowingly send their horses to be trained by a repeat offender of the Horse Protection Act? Is it possible that the Shermans didn’t know what was going on—that they were victims, too? All it would have taken for them to know who McConnell was, was a trip to the public databases for his, his wife's, and his stable hands HPA violation history. Concerned owners would certainly be that prudent, especially when dealing with millions of dollars of "property", by which they mean living creatures-- horses. One Horse Protection Act violation could be an accident; a series of them is what is called a pattern. The Shermans should have been able to find that data because they were featured in the data bases themselves.
According to records available to the public, Floyd Sherman has a personal history of soring violations as far back as 1989, continuing in 1992, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005. By 2011 he had ample experience with the Horse Protection Act and had paid enough legal fees to know that soring is illegal and can be prosecuted. Multiple citations would be more than enough to indicate to any reasonable person that his horses were being abused in training but it appears that violations were not confined to the head of the family but were a family tradition. His wife, Beverly, was cited for violations of the Horse Protection Act five times between 2006 and 2009. Daughter Patricia Kelly nee Sherman chalked up at least seven violations of the Horse Protection Act between 2006 and 2009. The Shermans other trainer, Billy Young, now the president of the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association, also made the violation list. Mrs. Sherman and her daughter have had a recent federal case for showing a sore horse. All fig leaves of lack of knowledge disappear once you get a federal notification of suspension for showing sore horses.
Reasonable people would presume after looking at that history that “innocent owners” and law abiding citizens, after receiving multiple notifications citing them as the owners of horses found sore in violation of the Horse Protection Act, would be so mortified, that they would immediately remove their horses from abusive situations, and never look back. Instead, over many years, they persisted.
The Shermans had reason to know what was happening to their horses in the name of “training” at the hands of Jackie McConnell and his employees and must have approved of his methods, otherwise why would they leave their horses with him while he was serving a federal disqualification for soring? Also, according to the data base, the first federal case successfully prosecuted against Jackie McConnell concerned a horse owned by the Shermans: McConnell received a civil penalty for soring in that case. Through multiple citations, suspensions, and disqualifications, the Shermans bought horses from him, left their horses in his care, and paid him to train them, the world now knows, inhumanely. They were committed patrons of McConnell’s lucrative and ghastly business; that is how the Shermans’ horses ended up confiscated as evidence and the Shermans ended up in the sights of the state of Tennessee.
The Walking Horse must be protected by the state and the federal government because a horse does not sore itself; the horse does not choose to break the law; the horse doesn’t give a hoot about being named a world grand champion and making a spotlight ride but the horse surely does feel in pain and the horse has no understanding of why these things are done to it. People like the Shermans make the choices about where a horse will be trained. They choose what they are willing to tolerate in order to win.
Even though they haven't been personally charged with a crime, they allowed and paid for crimes to be committed by their trainer. People of good conscience would have to believe that there are times when the rights of the defenseless have to trump the “rights” of people who have not been good stewards. If you, as an owner, pay for a product produced by a crime and you benefit from that illegal activity with show ring winnings and ribbons you might expect that when the activity is discovered you could end up with some unpleasant consequences of your own.
Apparently the lawyers for the Texans feel it is acceptable for their clients to send sentient creatures to be abused, in violation of federal and state laws, and then to expect, no demand, that the horses will be returned to them.
Here’s a rhetorical question for the next judge who will preside over this case: If the horses are returned to the Shermans, who are repeat offenders of the HPA, what will stop them from re-starting the cycle of cruelty again?
If the Shermans win in court and they could, the losers, as has happened far too often in the state of Tennessee, will be the horses that can’t hire lawyers. This time the State of Tennessee is trying to do the right thing. Let’s hope that at trial, the “right thing “ becomes apparent to all who are involved and the horses, rather than the people, are found to be innocent victims.