Damning Documents Expose Extreme Walking Horse Cruelty

By on October 20, 2015 with 30 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

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.


In the photos taken by USDA investigators, the inside of Larry Wheelon’s barn looks like a medieval torture chamber. The walls are lined with heavy logging chains and weighted high heel shoes for the horses known as stacks.

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.

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Equine, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

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  1. Kim Tornatore says:

    That was a very hard video to watch. The cruelty those people would go to get the “grand prize”. The owners and people who “work” with the horses need to be punished harshly and all the horses taken away and given to people who will love them, the way they should be.

    • m nicol says:

      the trainers would have no jobs and wouldn’t continue with this practice is the owners did not pay them and look the other way. arrest the owners and make them responsible for their actions. i am responsible for my chid and his actions – same thing. it is still the property of the owner – so it is the owner who should be responsible for good and bad deeds. find the owners and bury their asses in publicity. most of these people in this industry are famous, rich people and have no empathy for what is happening – they just want the win and so the trainers give it to them at all costs. i came from the south – i know this. we have the same issues in the Arabian horse industry – they bury what goes on – it is awful. get the owners – that is the only way it will stop.

  2. Cheryl Durst says:

    Please, please contact your US Representatives and your US Senators and ask them to support the PAST Act legislation. Soring is just absolutely unacceptable and it is so horrific for the horses to endure just so someone can ride a horse that picks its feet up higher than another which may or may not give them an advantage in the show ring. Horses deserve so much better than this. For those of you living in WV, here is contact information for your US Legislators: We also urge you to contact your legislators directly, though their websites (see links below):
    Senator Shelley Moore Capito: https://www.capito.senate.gov/contact/contact-shelley

    Senator Joe Manchin III: http://www.manchin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact-form

    Representative David B. McKinley: https://mckinley.house.gov/email-me/

    Representative Alex Mooney: https://mooney.house.gov/contact

    Representative Evan H. Jenkins: https://evanjenkins.house.gov/contact

    • anne walker says:

      i don’t know how much good it will do to contact politicians. they pay off all the republicans.
      i plan to bring this to the attention of frank deford, oprah winfrey and taylor swift. the only way to stop this is to bring national attention to it. we can’t litigate it away.

      • Laura Ousley says:

        I hope you are successful in getting the word out. We are still trying to get the PAST Act through (not all the Republicans are bought), This is a bi-partisan issue and the PAST Act has a lot of support from both parties. There is growing list of celebrities supporting the PAST act as well. Thanks for caring!

      • Anonymous says:

        I guess you didn’t realize that the author, Ed Whitfield, of the PAST Act is a Republican. SMH.

      • Hendrik van Maldegem says:

        Lots of celebrities have horses and compassion for animals! I think this is a great idea! Bruce Springsteen’s daughter is in international level competition, Martha Stewart has horses, Shania Twain, etc..

        Also we need to speak up when we see events – don’t be afraid to speak out against it with friends and family as well.

  3. Erica Hodge says:

    Wheelon (& no Mr. before that) he does not deserve it should be given the same disgusting hooific treatment as he inflicts on these beautiful creatures. It’s a terrible shame someone in law enforcement doesn’t grow a pair of balls and do something NOW! PUT HIS SORRY ASS IN JAIL, TAKE AWAY ALL ANIMALS & HIS RIGHT TO OWN ANY!

    • Christina Trainer says:

      100% truth Erica in everything u said… Poor babies. I can’t even imagine the pain they go through. It was the first time I ever heard a horse cry, on one of the videos. I am so angry now.

  4. Kay says:

    I live here (TN) in the area of this horrific practice of (soring) of these gentle horses. They are are one of our states greatest Heritages. With all the evidence provided to the authorities of this state, I cannot, will not understand the tolerance of this practice. It is a unlawful, sickening practice of some individuals to get one step ahead to getting that accolade and most of all greed. To any one who has the priviledge of having horses in their lives, as I have, it is a unconscionable practice of causing pain, sometimes permanent lameness,physiological mental stress on some gentle animals. These horses are known for their very easy riding gaits, many, many people ride them for trail riding, for that ability of ease. Why? would a organization condone this practice. Why? would this great state of TN want to be known for the Tennessee Walking Horse by this practice of soring and abuse. How can we sit by and condone this abuse?

    • Tricia says:

      Can you get out and start a boycott of these shows? If no one goes but their like kind, won’t that be making a statement?

      • Laura Ousley says:

        We have been boycotting and protesting big lick Tennessee Walking Horse shows. Please google Tennessee Walking Horse Soring and learn more about what we are trying to do and about the politicians who block legislation such as the Prevent All Soring (PAST) Act.

  5. Maria J pettersson says:

    This most end now!! Awful people!!!

  6. Marilyn Hutchings says:

    This practice is blatent cruelty and why this is allowed is a horrible act of inhumanity. What the h”l is wrong with people who think doing things like this to horses is ok? They need to get their heads out of their butts and face up to their criminal ways. The TWH association needs to get a grip on reality and put an end to such cruelty and abolish the “big lick” forever!!

  7. Nina Margetson says:

    I was onsite and have first hand knowledge of what was found that day at the Wheelon barn. I was there and heard first hand the horrors of what these horses went through from the barn hand. The case was solid, but we never got a chance to be heard in court. Such a shame this stuff is allowed to continue by this man. God will pass judgment someday and those involved will not be able to wessel their way out then.

    • katie says:

      what is wrong with the law is they are getting paid, and don’t care except the money that it brings in, GOD WILL JUDGE THEM ,just in case u
      they don’t know this ,I believe it is one of God’s Favorite Animals, !!!

    • Laura Ousley says:

      Hi Nina. I live in Maryville, Tennessee and watched the so-called hearing. I was so disgusted with Judge Harrington’s decision to dismiss the case and I still wonder of the legality of what she did, and whether this could be taken up with a higher court, or if there should be an investigation into why the case was stalled for two years. The 1st judge recuse himself and recanted on his original statement about knowing who the person who conducted the search warrant. It was all so shady! I will always hold this against Tammy Harrington for letting Larry Wheelon walk out of that room without any consequences. I want this story out and told everywhere.

    • C T says:

      I think CNN should do a documentary similar to Blackfish to blow the lid off of this nationally and globallly.I think everyone should write the Governor every single day and Nascar and other groups where these trainers are affiliated. This needs more press, more celebrity awareness, etc. I am sick to read about the two horses dying from colic and don’t understand why TN doesn’t prosecute under plain animal cruelty laws.

    • C T says:

      Send all the evidence to the Huffington Post and Deadspin, etc. Get it out there somehow……

  8. Cathy says:

    Thank you Mr Pacelle for continuing this fight to end the soring of TWHs. The horses depend on people like you to be their voice and demand answers from those who have pledged to uphold the law. Those who deny that these practices are abuse are always crying ‘ foul’ when caught in the act and judges are ignoring the evidence in their zeal to protect the rights of the abusers. It’s a very sad commentary on our supposedly ‘civilized’ nation that all our animals are not treated with respect and dignity.

  9. Tracy says:

    Good heavens, did I read correctly that he was the former head of the Walking Horse Trainers Association’s Ethics Committee? Is this seriously the best that people in this industry can come up with as protector for their breed?

    • Laura Ousley says:

      Yes, he even was invited to “judge” a show recently in Middle Tennessee. Business as usual for this monster. No justice for the horses – Please lets try to get an investigation into why this case was dropped. I don’t believe the search warrant was illegal, and I think the whole thing was a set-up.

  10. cheryl carr says:

    please stop this barbaric cruelty.

  11. Maria Vedin says:

    please stop this barbaric cruelty.
    Stoppa detta djurplågeri nu!!!

  12. gloria carter says:

    the should be prosecuted to the length of the crime they should suffer too

  13. Jan Webber says:

    When my sister and I were horse showing our Arabian horses 40 plus years ago we witnesses this abuse to Tennessee Walking and 5 gaited horses! So sad that it is continuing! It has to stop!!’

  14. Cat Kennie says:

    This barbaric abuse continues despite the brave protestors at big lick shows, the negative media coverage, the HSUS and the USDA (both of these groups are doing a wonderful job) but they are hampered by the lack of will to press charges and prosecute on the part of the law and the court system. The P.A.S.T. Act needs to be voted on very soon in order to remove the stacked shoes and the leg chains and rollers. The Tennessee Walking horses will find themselves then able to compete on a more level playing field in the flat-shod divisions of the shows. Banning the stacks and chains will not mean the end of these horse’s futures, it will mean cutting the infection away and letting the healing begin.

  15. Lucy Mae Evans says:

    We live in TN and EVERY year there are horror tales to the TN Walkers. Our view point is to shut down the competition completely! No try at the prize no need to continue this cruelty. This whole thing just keeps going and going no matter what valiant attempts have been made to stop this. Can we possibly stop this competition?

  16. Shawna Tyson says:

    These horses are beautiful at their natural gait. What these people see in these over exaggerated gaits is a mystery to me. All the poor horses this is done to are victims who are being ignored for ribbons. I cant believe people can watch a horse lay on its legs to relieve pain and think its ok. Sickening.

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