Late last year, The HSUS obtained still photographs and reports from USDA inspectors who examined horses trained by Larry Wheelon during the execution of a search warrant. Wheelon is a well-known figure in the Tennessee walking horse show world. Those deeply disturbing images revealed that Wheelon and his associates intentionally injured and “sored” horses – deliberately injuring the animals’ feet to produce an artificial, exaggerated gait known as the “big lick.”
Now we’ve had our first look at video footage of the abuse Wheelon and his people perpetrated. This damning footage – plain evidence of criminal cruelty that Wheelon and his defense team tried to prevent from getting out into the public domain — is being released to the public for the first time today on this blog. The video shows a USDA inspector evaluating the injuries to the horses and confirms in a dramatic way what the still photographs told us about the cruelty these people committed in that barn. The horses felt such pain that they violently pulled away as the inspector handled their feet and lower limbs.
Tennessee law enforcement got their behind-the-scenes look at the goings-on in the barn in 2013, and the evidence of abuse was so jarring that they arrested Wheelon and three others under Tennessee’s animal cruelty law. Wheelon and his defense attorney managed to get the first set of charges dismissed on a technicality. But the evidence against him was so damning that a grand jury indicted Wheelon and his associates for aggravated cruelty to livestock and conspiracy to commit aggravated cruelty to animals – 15 felony charges and three misdemeanors.
But a Blount County judge granted Wheelon’s motion to suppress all evidence obtained during the search based on a technicality, letting him go scot-free. The photos, and now the video, have come to light only after The HSUS obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Despite plenty of evidence that there was wrongdoing, even if there was no conviction, Wheelon was embraced by the industry. As recently as a year ago, he was welcomed to judge a well-known “big lick” horse show in Columbia, Tennessee. He continued to train and exhibit “big lick” walking horses. It appears he kept on hurting horses, and he was again cited for breaking the law.
Wheelon was chair of the Walking Horse Trainers Association’s Ethics Committee and an AAA-rated horse show judge for the laughably named “Sound Horses, Honest Judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly” (SHOW). This Horse Industry Organization’s list of judges reads like a who’s who of people cited for Horse Protection Act violations – including most of the judging panel for this year’s Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration currently underway in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
This video – and The HSUS’s undercover investigations at top walking horse training barns showing a subculture of cruelty within the “big lick” cadre of trainers and owners – underscores the desperate need for serious reform in this industry. The USDA’s proposed rule to strengthen its Horse Protection Act regulations would end four decades of failed industry self-policing and ban the use of devices such as tall stacked shoes and ankle chains that are an integral part of the soring process. This would be a monumental step forward in eradicating soring.
Of course, the horse soring crowd has long relied on a handful of lawmakers in Congress to protect them, and they’re now attempting to delay this rule — requesting a 60-day extension of the current public comment period scheduled to end on September 26th. The extension, if granted, would most likely put the rule on hold for the next president’s administration to consider – and condemn thousands of walking horses to yet another show season of agony like that inflicted by Larry Wheelon on his victims.
The HSUS, American Association of Equine Practitioners, and American Veterinary Medical Association are among the many groups advocating for the reforms offered by the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 3268/S. 1121, and by the USDA’s proposed rule that mirrors its key elements. We have contacted the USDA to urge the agency not to honor the request for delay, and instead move quickly to implement these long overdue reforms at the end of this comment period.
As the 78th Celebration rolls to a close in Shelbyville this week, we have good reason to hope this will be the last year in more than half a century of celebrating organized animal cruelty, and that a future free of pain and full of promise is on the horizon for the Tennessee walking horse breed.
Watch the video and view the photos of Larry Wheelon’s demonic handiwork – and when you are as outraged as I am by this flagrant brutality, take action to put a stop to it by telling the USDA you support its proposed rule, and want to see it implemented without delay.