- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A legal battle over who gets custody of two abused Tennessee walking horses is heating up after a state appeals court said it’s not willing to return the animals to their purported owners just yet.

The state of Tennessee and the Humane Society of the United States do not want the horses, named Paroled in the Night and Mucho Bueno, to go back to their owners.

The two were among eight horses that were rescued after animal rights activists with the Humane Society secretly recorded trainers beating them and poking them with electric cattle prods. The undercover investigation also found that the trainers used blistering chemicals on the horses’ feet and legs because the pain is believed to make the horse step even higher so they can gain an advantage in shows that prize the powerful high-step known as the “big lick.”

The undercover recordings, which went viral, helped lead to animal cruelty convictions for Jackie McConnell, a former hall of fame Tennessee walking horse trainer and others who worked at Whitter Stables in Collierville, Tennessee. The trainers also pleaded guilty to violation of the federal Horse Protection Act.

The two horses are currently in the custody of the Humane Society and being rehabilitated at an undisclosed location, and the animal rights organization is vowing to keep fighting to make sure owners don’t get them.

“They have truly not expressed the slighted regret or remorse for the torture these animals endured during our investigation,” said Leana Stormont, senior attorney with the Humane Society of the United States.

The owners, Beverly and Kelly Sherman, have maintained throughout court proceedings that that they weren’t the ones who abused the animals.

The Shermans’ attorney did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment

The Shermans have a history of using abusive trainers in the past, Fayette County District Attorney General Mike Dunavant said in court documents filed in the case.

Authorities seized Paroled in the Night and Mucho Bueno in March 2012 when the horse trainers were being investigated. The horses were placed in the custody of the Humane Society as the Fayette County DA’s office filed a forfeiture complaint against the Shermans.

In November of 2013, a judge ordered the horses to go back to the Shermans, saying the state waited too long to apply for the forfeiture warrant. The state Attorney General’s Office appealed that order. The horses were ordered to continue to stay with the Humane Society until the appeal is over.

On Wednesday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned the decision giving the Shermans the horses. The opinion said the Shermans must first prove they are the true owners of Paroled in the Night and Mucho Bueno before they can wage a legal battle for them.

In the meantime, the horses are doing well, Stormont says. It took a while for them to recover from chemical burns and even longer for them to feel safe, she said.

“They were skittish and highly fearful animals on the day that they were seized, and after months and months and now years of work, they have finally started to trust people again.”

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