The shattered Tennessee Walking Horse industry will once again fall under the glower of the world’s horse advocates today when a known “Big Lick” trainer, Larry Joe Wheelon, is scheduled to be arraigned on one charge of aggravated animal cruelty in a Maryville, Tenn., courtroom. Two accomplices, Randall Stacy Gunter of Louisville, and Brandon Lunsford of Walland, have also been charged and, with evidence that is said to be “overwhelming,” the case will likely go to the Grand Jury.
State officials raided Wheelon’s barn in April and found 19 animals that had been sadistically sored and burned with caustic substances to achieve the “Big Lick,” an unnatural high step that in the past year has caused Tennessee to become the epicenter of horse abuse in the world. If a True Bill is returned by the Grand Jury, Wheelon and his barn workers will be charged with an additional 18 other counts, each a felony carrying one to five years in state prison if the men are convicted.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to learn who actually owns the injured horses that were in the trainer’s care because it is believed the owners could also be charged under Tennessee law if the owners had approved such horrendous treatment that some of the horses received. Several horses had been abused so badly, according to official present at the raid, they could hardly walk or stand.
Wheelon has vigorously denied the charges, but after high-profile trainer Jackie McConnell was proven to be a sadistic felon by federal prosecutors last summer, evoking the ire of horsemen worldwide, Wheelon’s alleged animal abuse lends heavily to the belief soring and contemptuous violations of the federal Horse Protection Act are still rampant in the disreputable “Big Lick” portion of the horse-show industry.
Curiously, a defiant stance has been embraced by the Shelbyville-based “Big Lick” crowd and, with a virtual army of organizations intent on exposing the vile soring and heinous “stewarding” practices against the innocent animals, horse advocates are joining in an unprecedented effort to clean up the sickening image that has now defiled the majestic breed and made the “Big Lickers” the laughingstock of the animal world.
Several weeks ago, after the Executive Committee of the breed’s registry suggested to its board that there should be “dramatic changes” to “rid ourselves of this black cloud,” the board – somewhat aghast that then-president Tracy Boyd would admit it -- quickly vetoed the committee’s request, that in itself a fact that enraged horse owners everywhere.
Boyd, who at the time worked as the general manager of the Baskin-Irby Construction Company, was promptly fired by noted “Big Lick” enthusiast Randall Baskin, who has both financed and earned quite a reputation for himself. But, wait! Last week Boyd was hired as the executive director of the registry, causing the notorious “Big Lickers” to froth and heave as though they had sored themselves.
Since the Breed Registry is not affiliated with the cash-strapped National Celebration or its offshoots like the now highly-suspect Walking Horse Trainers Association (Wheelon was head of the Ethics Committee until April’s raid) or the latest creation – the Performance Horse Association – only those “Big Lickers” on the Executive Committee can stop the popular Boyd’s appointment.
According to insiders, Boyd’s appointment was voted 7-4 after Ron Thomas took early retirement to facilitate the move. With the opponents fuming, Registry “Life Member” Kasey Kesselring has written an impassioned letter claiming to be alarmed at the “process” and requesting “prudence.”
Kesselring, who was soundly defeated when he tried to get a seat on the Registry’s Executive Committee, is a known “Big Licker” who is lightly regarded by true horsemen due to a number of violations and subsequent suspensions of the Horse Protection Act. There is also said to be a move afoot for the Celebration to now attempt to buy the Registry, which is also cash-strapped. Membership has withered since the McConnell tape and revelations upon revelations have surfaced in just the past year.
There is currently a bill before Congress (H.R. 1518) that would amend the Horse Protection Act, directed rightly at the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. But now there is some belief the “Big Lickers,” as unbelievable as it might sound, would promptly sidestep the law by calling their animals “Tennessee Performance Horses” rather than Walkers and be exempt from such a law.
Actually, the Whitfield-Cohen amendment needs to include all horses. In Europe and in America there is an effort to clamp down on owners of hunters and jumpers who are soring their animals in a technique called “hypersensitization.” They foolishly believe that by irritating the forelegs of the horses before competition it will cause their mounts to jump higher over obstacles. In Tennessee anyone caught committing such a crime can be jailed for one-to-five years – a horse is a horse in the eyes of this state.
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On a personal note, I have received thousands of emails from all over the world in my efforts to eradicate horse abuse so this weekend I got hundreds of emails from true horse people after they learned the tragedy at Happy Valley Farm, where 35 famed horses died in a barn fire, was near Chattanooga.
“Bit” Hutcheson, the nationally-renowned owner of the stables, is the daughter of the late John L. Hutcheson, who was a close friend of my grandfather, the late Roy McDonald, and the sadness that is now felt in our region is amplified all across America. She is the epitome of the noblest horsewoman who ever walked on earth and many thousands here and beyond grieve her loss.
Regardless of breed, a fire in a horse barn is the absolute worst thing that can happen to any owner and, knowing full and well the love ‘Bit” had for her animals and the delight each of those horses freely shared with her in return, will more than qualify the disaster among the worst of any kind in the area’s history. The Hutcheson family didn’t deserve it, but, knowing them, they will most definitely persevere.