A Freedom of Information Act request filed by The HSUS has yielded hundreds of pages of damning information, including grim and grisly photographs, documenting the abuse of Tennessee walking horses by Larry Wheelon, the trainer who got a get-out-of-jail card last year based on a technicality after prosecutors brought charges against him for alleged illegal soring and aggravated cruelty.
The photos, collected when the Blount County, Tenn., sheriff’s office and U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators searched Wheelon’s barn in April 2013, show sickening evidence of soring, designed to induce the artificial high-stepping gait known as the “big lick.” Photos show horses with weeping open wounds on their ankles – a common result when caustic chemicals are applied and cooked into the skin with plastic wrap and duct tape. Horses are seen standing in a “bucket stance” – a position where they unnaturally tuck their legs beneath their bodies in a desperate attempt to relieve the pain of simply standing still. The inside of the barn looks like a medieval torture chamber. The walls are lined with heavy logging chains and weighted high heel shoes known as stacks. And then there are the chemicals – huge containers of mustard oil, cinnamon oil, WD-40, and unlabeled concoctions containing any number of substances banned by the USDA for use on show horses.
Based on these photos alone, I can tell you that if there is a hell on earth for horses, Wheelon’s barn on the day of the raid was it. The horses were clearly suffering at the hands of their persecutors.
Trainers who coerce their horses into performing the “big lick” will go to great lengths to conceal their misdeeds. We expect denials and counter-claims when the evidence of their cruelty is pushed into the public domain – the equivalent of people denying that the sky is blue. We witnessed this when we released the findings of our latest undercover investigation on ThorSport Farm, a major Tennessee walking horse training barn. (It’s been months since we turned over our evidence from the ThorSport investigation to the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, and the sheriff has still not taken action.)
In Wheelon’s case, the evidence compelled a grand jury to indict him for aggravated cruelty to livestock and conspiracy to commit aggravated cruelty to animals – 15 felony charges and three misdemeanors. But in May 2015, based on a technicality, a Blount County judge granted Wheelon’s motion to suppress all evidence obtained during the search, letting Wheelon off the hook and free to get back to business as usual.
And he’s not wasted any time. This former head of the Walking Horse Trainers Association’s Ethics Committee has continued to train and exhibit “big lick” walking horses and has been cited for breaking the law. In fact, The HSUS recently learned he is demanding the return of all his implements of soring seized during the raid, including a large container of mustard oil. And several of his hapless victims whose soring injuries were so graphically documented in the USDA photos have continued to be exhibited at shows, including at this year’s Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. While under indictment in July 2014, Wheelon was cited and paid a fine for bringing a sored horse to a show. Yet in September 2015, Wheelon was allowed to judge a “big lick” horse show in Maury County, Tennessee. I find it extraordinary that the walking horse industry still allows Wheelon to show his face at shows and serve as a judge, given the severity of the charges brought against him.
Soring of Tennessee walking horses remains in the marrow of the “big lick” sect of the walking horse industry, despite enforcement efforts by USDA and the work of The HSUS and others who are working to expose these cruel and illegal practices. Enacted by Congress in 1970, the Horse Protection Act was the legal tool constructed to put an end to this despicable practice, but the scofflaws have proven too brazen and the law too weak to close out their organized criminal conduct. The “big lick” industry has proven time and again that it is unable and unwilling to clean up.
The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, H.R. 3268/ S. 1121, is the only solution to end soring once and for all. Both the House and Senate bills have enormous bipartisan support, and there’s no good reason not to bring up these bills for a vote. In fact, the Wheelon case, with this kind of evidence that we’ve brought into the public sphere, reminds us more than ever that the law must be strong enough to stop remorseless people who inflict this kind of misery on these gentle, beautiful horses as a way to cheat and get a step ahead of their competition.