Federal agents, accompanied by Blount County animal control officers, raided the barn of walking horse trainer Larry Wheelon near Maryville, Tn., on Thursday morning and sources said they were “shocked” to find evidence of illegal soring and visible abuse among the 28 horses at the farm located on Tuckaleechee Pike.
Sources said the forelegs of most of the horses were wrapped after caustic substances had been applied to the animals and a paste thought to be a mixture including cinnamon and kerosene was being utilized to achieve the so-called “Big Lick,” an unnatural gait that wins blue ribbons in Shelbyville. According to one source, several horses were “in agony” as veterinarians palpated the animals’ irritated front legs.
Wheelon told reporters from television station WBIR (Channel 10 News in Knoxville) that the agents didn’t find anything after serving a search warrant at approximately 7 a.m., but a Blount County animal control officer was quoted by the TV station as saying, “I think we have very different ideas about what abuse is.” Agents spent nine hours at Wheelon’s barn on Thursday in order to inspect each animal.
Because Wheelon did not have written proof the animals had been inspected for Coggins Disease (equine infectious anemia), 27 of the horses were later placed under quarantine by state health officials and cannot be transported. On Friday, federal attorneys were pursuing whether a protective order and/or similar legal instruments should also be employed. The names of the owners of the horses have not been released.
Since the Thursday raid, neither the USDA nor county animal control officials will make any comment “due to an ongoing investigation” but outside sources revealed the USDA officers included licensed veterinarians who were video-taped as they removed the wrapping from the horses’ legs, discovered alleged caustic agents, palpated tender areas and took sterile swabs.
It is believed it will take approximately two weeks for the labs to properly analyze the swabs. If the lab tests, and other evidence taken, result in an arrest warrant, Wheelon and others involved could be charged by federal and state agencies. Officers of the Blount County Sheriff’s Department also participated in the raid to provide security. Wheelon was not allowed on the property while the search warrant was in place.
It is being reported that approximately 26 of the 28 horses had wrapping on their forelegs and, under a Tennessee law that went into effect last July, each count that is proven valid is now a felony, punishable by not less than one but no more than five years in prison. Under federal law, horse abuse is still a misdemeanor, although there is legislation pending that would make it a more serious crime.
Wheelon, who is an active director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association, has been suspended by the USDA at least 15 different times for violations of the Horse Protection Act, dating from 1993 through 2012. Additionally, he was fined $1,550 in 1981 by the USDA and court records reveal that in 1978 he was charged with soring a horse at a North Carolina show. A person known as “Linda Wheelon” was also suspended in 2006, according to USDA archives.
Wheelon is a member of the Ethics Committee for the Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and sits on its building committee. He is a member of the East Tennessee Walking Horse Association and is a AAA-rated horse show judge with the Shelbyville-based S.H.O.W. organization, the largest of the USDA’s registered horse groups. S.H.O.W. is an abbreviation meaning “Sound Horses. Honest Judging. Objective Inspections. Winning Fairly.”
The agents raided his barn after receiving a tip, it is believed.
Ironically, on Wednesday of this week the Tennessee Legislature voted to approve a law that requires a“whistleblower” to report animal abuse to law authorities within a 48-hour time period or be charged with a misdemeanor. It is now alleged that if the “AgGag”law were in effect (it is awaiting the governor’s signature) the tipster would be the criminal and Wheelon – who is indeed innocent until proven guilty –would skip any state charges due to the bill’s carefully-crafted limitations.
The USDA recently released an 11-page report of foreign substance results that were taken at random at horse shows in 2012. According to the Department of Agriculture, of 24 shows that were tested by licensed officials, 309 out of 478 walking horses tested positive for banned substances.
Each trainer was issued a “ticket” by the USDA. The trainer is suspended from showing horses but by assigning another trainer, changing the horse’s name and using another “owner,” the horse can stay in the competition.
Federal prosecutors in Chattanooga enforced the Federal Horse Protection Act for the first time in its 40-year history just two years ago and, among those who pleaded guilty in 2012 was Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell, who is still awaiting a state trial after videos were taken showing him torturing horses at his barn in West Tennessee.
The video, going viral after it appeared on ABC’s“Nightline,” brought worldwide attention to the widespread horse abuse in Tennessee and the state legislature enacted a bill to make livestock abuse a felony. Since the law went into effect on July 1, 2012, it has not yet been used by state prosecutors in a criminal case.
It is believed federal and state animal control agencies have heightened enforcement of livestock abuse due to increased public interest and better laws to prosecute violators. Asked if there would be other raids in the state, officials would not comment.