Steven B. Smith, a Republican political activist with strong ties to the scurrilous Big Lick crowd that has defamed the entire Tennessee Walking Horse industry, was named as president of its powerful breed registry over the weekend. Just two days later – on Monday – three Tennessee men pleaded not guilty to 18 scorching indictments that charged each with aggravated animal cruelty of Tennessee Walking Horses.
Larry Joe Wheelon, a Big Lick trainer based in Maryville with a lengthy record of federal violations, appeared with his two workers in Blount County Circuit Court Monday and all will face trial in the spring. Wheelon, who chairs the Ethics Committee of the Big Lick’s trainers association, and his stable workers were arrested after an April barn raid found 19 horses among 28 in a rented barn that several veterinarians identified as being brutally abused.
The horses were confiscated by the Humane Society of the United States and both federal and state law enforcement officials confirmed upon the promise on anonymity that some of the moaning animals could hardly walk. One horse actually bolted in pain while being examined, badly injuring a rescuer. A legal technicality dismissed the original charges against Wheelon and his crowd in August, but a Blount County grand jury reviewed the case and returned the scathing indictments on Dec. 3.
Thus the fight between decency and depravity in the state of Tennessee rages on with the defenseless horse caught in the middle and thousands of good and clean horsemen forced to bear the shame and ridicule. Smith, who has a record of violating the federal Horse Protection Act, is in fact the state finance chairman for Senator Lamar Alexander and has considerable sway with the state’s Republicans who hold office in both Congress and the Senate.
There are currently bills in both chambers to strengthen the Horse Protection Act but, to date, neither of Tennessee’s senators or seven-of-nine representatives in Congress have endorsed the bills, causing horse owners who loathe the Big Lick to believe Smith will now use his influence to quite literally put a hold on any pending legislation indefinitely.
The Big Lickers gave a reception in August for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood), raising $70,000, and she has notoriously waged war against the legislation ever since. Last year they had the same type of reception for Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Jasper) and he is known to have confronted the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, on behalf of the Lickers.
The Breeders and Exhibitors Association’s Executive Committee came out in support of HR1518/S1406, now called the PAST Act, earlier this year but immediately after the Big Lick wrestled away decisive control of the TWHBEA last weekend, the new officers voted to “overwhelmingly oppose” the PAST Act. It is said that at least five of the 12 new members of the Executive Committee either have, or are associated with, Horse Protection Act violations. As a result, a number of sound Walking Horse owners have already resigned from the Registry this week. (Sound horses are not sored and are flat shod)
The PAST Act, sponsored by Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield and Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen of Memphis, already has enough cosponsors to pass in Congress but insiders believe Smith will get two Senators to anonymously “tag team” a hold on the Senate bill. Such a crafty hold could last indefinitely and play right into the hands of the Big Lickers, who want their abuse of horses to remain a federal misdemeanor with no more punishment than a form letter now being sent from the Department of Agriculture to violators.
Conversely, horse abuse, or soring, became a serious felony in Tennessee last year under a new state law and sound horse advocates are eager to see the law brought into play if Wheelon, along with stable workers Randall Gunter and Brandon Lunsford are found guilty. Each has been charged with 13 felony counts and five misdemeanor counts. A Class E felony in Tennessee calls for one-to-six years in a state prison while misdemeanors are limited to 11 months, 29 days.
In addition, Tanner Primm of Louisville, Tenn., who is believed to be the first farrier ever arrested for horse abuse, faces one charge of aggravated animal abuse and one charge of conspiracy. Primm also pleaded not guilty.
What is puzzling is the reaction of the owners of the horses that were allegedly abused. If it can be proven any owners were aware Wheelon and his confederates were abusing their animals, does that make them accessories to a felony? Or, if they were unaware the front hooves and forelegs of their animals were ravaged in such a way that 19 horses had to be quarantined in secret locations for over six months, would that make those guilty subject to individual civil suits? And who pays the Humane Society for fostering the animals for six months?
One equine official said, “These are things that make this case extraordinary because this is all happening for the first time. The state of Tennessee has never tried a felony case on a Big Licker. The law enforcement people have literally videoed the horses being inspected and the swabs that were taken but no one is quite sure what role the owners will play.”.
The breed registry revealed the names of 11 owners whose horses were returned upon a judge’s order. The owners include Joseph L. Barnes (Los Lobos), Clyde or Loretta Mullins (Country Bumpkin), Joseph L. Barnes (Coach’s Twisted Play), Dr. G. F DeGraffenreid (Lady Antebellum), Birdie Schaftlein (Final Score), Annabelle L. Smith (In My Pocket), Larry Wheelon (She’s Just Sweeping), Carol Wright (She’s A Sweeper), Thurston Ware (Shades of Cash), Dwight Brooks (Sweepstakes Piazz), Linda J. Wheelon (Sweepin’ Up The Cash) and Bill Andrews (Jose’s Happy Feet).
The owners of thousands of sound Walkers both in and out of Tennessee believe that if God had intended for horses to have stacks on their front hooves, wear pressure devices and performance devices He would have made them original equipment.
But in something of a blood-sport lust for the blue ribbons, Tennessee Walkers have been sored by depraved men for at least a half century and most puzzling is the fact that if the Tennessee Walking Horse industry would simply stop the horrid practice, the United States would not be compelled to make federal laws to prevent horse abuse.
Steven B. Smith, the State Campaign Chairman for Senator Lamar Alexander, has been chosen as the new president of the Tenn. Walking Horse Breeders And Exhibitors Association and sound-horse advocates are scared he will use his influence in the Republican Party to defeat efforts to reform the beleaguered industry.