CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A horse trainer and two employees pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal Horse Protection Act conspiracy that included screwing bolts into hooves and using other painful means to give the animals’ animated gaits at horse shows.
Barney Davis, 39 and Jeffery Bradford, 34, both of Lewisburg, and 26-year-old Christen Altman of Shelbyville, changed their pleas to guilty in agreements with prosecutors. They will be sentenced Feb. 13.
A fourth defendant, Paul Blackburn, 35, of Shelbyville, previously pleaded guilty and will be sentenced Jan. 23.
Records show Davis, as a trainer of gaited horses at Hidden Creek Farms, also known as Monopoly Farm in Lewisburg, employed the others. He also pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to obstruct justice charge, which carries a maximum possible penalty of 20 years in prison. Davis remains in custody.
Bradford, Blackburn and Altman, who is Davis’s girlfriend, pleaded guilty to misdemeanors that carry a maximum possible sentence of one year in prison. They remain free on bonds. Altman’s plea agreement says she will not be incarcerated.
“We hope this prosecution and others like it will deter trainers and owners who are thinking about cheating and committing fraud in order to reap monetary profits and achieve notoriety,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Neff said in a statement released by his office at the first of two change of plea hearings Tuesday.
Donna Fletcher, general manager of the National Spotted Saddle Horse Association, said Tuesday that the horse soring case and punishment are sending a message that cheating doesn’t pay in an industry that she said enjoys a “family type atmosphere.”
Fletcher said the criminal case “has shown people that ‘Hey we are not going to tolerate this type of behavior.'”
She said horse shows are no different than car racing and other competitive events and money is not the main motivator.
“It’s more of a prestige thing,” Fletcher said in a telephone interview
She said the Tennessee-based association has about 3,000 paid members.
Fletcher said winning competitions builds a trainer’s reputation with owners.
“These horses are born naturally gaited,” Fletcher said. “It is further enhanced with many hours in the saddle.”
Records show the charges stemmed from a July 30, 2010, horse show. Investigators discovered falsified paperwork and an inspector discovered a “bolt device screwed against the sole” of a horse’s hoof.
After Davis was first arrested and released on bond, a video showed him building a block to affect a horse’s gait and being present when a plate and bolt were inserted in a horse’s foot area. He surrendered and has since been in custody. Neff said the obstruct justice charge stemmed from Davis trying to interfere with possible witnesses against him.
A superseding indictment in April included charges of falsifying entry forms and other related paperwork. Prosecutors said Davis and Altman collected payments from out-of-state clients based on false representations the animals would be legally trained. Altman’s attorney, Jerry Summers of Chattanooga, previously said about 30 horse owners each paid $400 a month to have Davis keep and train their animals.
Davis’s attorney, John Norton III of Shelbyville, said Tuesday that the horse soring investigation is not finished.
“I think the government is going to do more,” Norton said.
He said the motive for inflicting pain on horses to win shows is that it “circumvents the arduous training that is required to produce world champions.”