Roy Exum: Wheelon Shames Horse World

Saturday, April 27, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

As the aftershocks of Larry Wheelon’s sensational arrest in Maryville rippled through the Tennessee Walking Horse industry on Friday, federal and state officials were dismayed that the scofflaw horse trainer had allegedly put additional caustic substances on 19 horses in his care, this after enduring a federal search warrant just one week earlier and boastfully denying any evidence was found.

Wheelon, a 68-year-old trainer who has been suspended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at least 15 times since 1993, was charged with one count of aggravated animal cruelty in Blount County on Thursday and, later in the day, 19 of 27 horses were confiscated by state animal control officers and taken to several undisclosed locations.

Eight horses remain in his barn near Maryville.

All of the horses that were confiscated were said to have exhibited visible signs of soring, where irritants are used to “steward” the noble animals to lift their front legs in an unnatural gait called the “Big Lick.” Some of the horses had painful globs of hardened epoxy under their front hooves, which is akin to walking with a big rock in one’s shoe, and others had wrappings on their legs where the burning chemicals would “cook.”

“The worst symptom was seen in the animal’s eyes. You could tell they were in great pain. The eyes were dull instead of glossy. The mental state of the animals was obviously impaired,” said one equine expert, a fact that was soon proven when one horse literally ran over a veteran handler in a tragic barn accident Thursday afternoon. The woman was released from UT Medical Center on Friday.

It was at first feared the injured handler’s leg was broken but, instead, there was an 11-inch laceration that doctors said was two inches deep from her shin to her lower calf. The handler’s nose was broken and there were several other lacerations on her face. “She was beaten up pretty badly. The animal literally ran over her. She had handled the same horse the week before when veterinarians inspected the horses and took swabs but this time the horse just reacted to the pain and trauma.”

The horse was quickly calmed and sedated before being transported by employees of the Humane Society of the United States and Horse Haven, a rescue operation near Knoxville. Veterinarians and assistants worked into the night Friday removing what is believed to be a mixture of kerosene and cinnamon from the animals. Officials said mustard oil may have also been used but are awaiting lab results from the swabs, which usually takes between two and three weeks.

Soring, or torturing horses, is rampant in the “Big Lick” segment of the Walking Horse industry and Wheelon, a member of the Walking Horse Trainer’s Association which is rife with those who have been ticketed for years by USDA inspectors, is widely known as a “Dirty Licker, this in spite of the fact he serves on the group’s ethics committee.

Wheelon is also a AAA-rated judge with the Shelbyville-based S.H.O.W., which stands for “Sound horses. Honest Judging. Objective inspections. Winning Fairly.”

Mickey McCormick, the president of the Shelbyville-based trainers group, told the Shelbyville Times-Gazette he was unaware of Wheelon’s reputation. “I’ll be honest, I don’t have access to everyone’s record and I didn’t know that. I’m at a horse show right now and we have not been able to have a meeting yet. We’ll have a meeting the first of next week to discuss the issues and take appropriate action.”

Last year Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell, who infamously starred in an undercover video, was kicked out of the trainer’s association after he was arrested on federal charges. He was fined $75,000 and placed on a three-year suspension by a federal judge, Sandy Mattice, in Chattanooga and has since pleaded not guilty to 22 counts of state charges. A trial is scheduled this summer.

Mike Inman, the CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, told the Shelbyville Times-Gazette that Wheelon’s alleged actions were “unacceptable” and said, “It’s a serious thing. We can’t pretend this isn’t happening. If he’s broken the law, he’s going to have to be treated like anyone else.”

Inman’s comments brought howls of sarcastic laughter from many Walking Horse advocates in the state. “Larry Wheelon is no worse than other ‘Dirty Licker.’ Whenever the USDA tickets a trainer, everybody just laughs and goes about their business. Wheelon’s got horses all over Blount County that I wish could talk,” said a Maryville horse advocate.

Inman’s group, which includes several Walking Horse organizations, has actively battled efforts by the USDA, the Humane Society and other animal groups to curb soring, which is rampant in Tennessee despite the 1970 federal Horse Protection Act. Five men were found guilty on federal changes last year but Wheelon is the first to be charged under a new Tennessee law that makes horse abuse a felony punishable by one-to-five years in jail on each count.

Veterinarians, law enforcement authorities and people from the Humane Society and other groups involved all said the same thing Friday. “The horses confiscated had been subjected to repeated cruelty, there is no doubt about it. Most were treated before being transported – we tried to minimalize the pain in the forelegs – and within several days they should be better in a physical sense. The mental state is another thing entirely.”

Wheelon, whose bond was set at $5,000, apparently spent Thursday night in the Blount County jail and it is anticipated additional charges may be brought by state and federal officials. “We found 19 horses that appeared to be in pain and that had been injured. One count of aggravated animal abuse simply put the process in motion. This way we could take the injured horses for help immediately but everybody pretty much agrees there will be additional charges.”

Wheelon will appear in Blount County Sessions Court on Tuesday but many questions still need to be answered. Authorities have not released the names of the horse owners but, if they knowingly placed horses in Wheelon’s care to be sored, it is believed criminal charges could result. There is also a belief that people who worked for Wheelon could face charges in the same way Jackie McConnell’s helpers admitted guilt.

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