Roy Exum: Horse Show Is Closely Watched

Thursday, August 22, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration began its 11-day run in Shelbyville last night, it was evident it will be the most closely-watched spectacle in the 75 years the event has taken place. But the eyes of the horse men and women won’t be nearly as focused on the magnificent animals as they will be trained on the scurrilous few who have brought worldwide disrepute to what is considered the epicenter of horse abuse in the country.

The star at this year’s show will be Larry Joe Wheelon, a Maryville trainer whose barn was raided in April and 19 animals were seized. According to multiple eyewitnesses, the horses had been severely abused with soring techniques that still threaten to ruin the reputation of the horse, the state, and many thousands of wonderful and innocent people who have embraced the fabled Walkers for generations.

Wheelon is deeply entrenched in the disreputable “Big Lick” segment of the Walking Horse industry and, sure enough, after a horrific technically sullied his preliminary hearing last week, crucial testimony was denied and he was set free.  The very next day he was immediately embraced by the SHOW organization and his judge’s license was restored as well as his trainer’s credentials.

Wheelon has a long history of federal Horse Protection Act violations, as do many others who sit on the trainer’s association board, and his joyful reunion with SHOW cast dark doubt that the “Big Lick” group was sincere on Monday when an unnamed SHOW spokesperson, via a news release, announced the group would adopt the minimum penalty protocol demanded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Another seed-of-doubt was planted when it was announced Marsha Blackburn, a Congresswoman from the state’s Seventh District, will be feted with a fundraiser Thursday night. Blackburn is believed to be a “Big Lick” advocate and a loud opponent of a pending bill in Congress to strengthen the Horse Protection Act. Last year Scott DesJarlais, a Republican from Jasper, was similarly honored and then brow-beat Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack before SHOW actually sued the USDA and lost.

Suddenly – within just a month – SHOW abruptly accepts USDA protocol after maligning the government agency for years? The USDA protocol calls for a questionable horse to be removed from the show immediately and also includes possible sanctions on owners and riders, a move that has many trainers up in arms. This year’s entry deadline occurred before SHOW’s startling “olive branch” and celebration officials promised refunds to any trainers who might withdraw.

Pending legislation in Congress and in the Senate calls for sweeping changes in the Horse Protection Act and a major part would outlaw stacks, bands and action devices where Big Lickers often hide irritants to make the horses pick up their forelegs higher. Advocates hope this will be the last year the hideous pads are used, but members of SHOW are planning a push on Congress after the Celebration in a lobbying effort to derail the much-needed amendment.

The number of entries and of horses in this year’s Celebration are expected to be down 20 percent from last year and, with public scorn and distrust high, the crowds will be even smaller than last year when the Celebration was roiled by the undercover tape of Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell viciously beating a chained horse and sadistically torturing other animals in a blood-lust for the cheap blue ribbons.

McConnell, now a federal felon, pleaded guilty to state charges this summer and is prohibited from owning or training a horse for the next 20 years. He and his wife, however, will sponsor at least two classes at the year’s Celebration. Last week Celebration officials threw the Breeders and Exhibitors Association off the property where it had built a building so that adds to the turmoil of this year’s event.

On Tuesday of this week Wheelon continued to insist he didn’t use caustic chemicals on the horses that were confiscated in his barn, but evidence, inadmissible per a Blount County judge’s decree, proved otherwise. Videotapes showed horses that could barely walk and USDA official said there was “no doubt” Wheelon would have been found guilty if a key witness had not been erroneously in the courtroom while other testimony was being given.

Wheelon, picking his words carefully, told Knoxville TV station WATE, “"We were working our horses under the guidelines of the industry. We were not using caustic chemicals and they didn't find any caustic chemicals on my horses," he said. “I've told all my owners I was sorry this was happening, and I hate what they're going through. I've got some customers that have been with me since 1965."

According to the USDA, “caustic chemicals” is hard for some people to define. USDA inspectors this year have found such things as cinnamon, oil, kerosene, boric acid, Kopertox, diesel fuel, Gojo hand cleaner and benzocaine are now being used to pain, or sore, the Walking Horses in shows they have attended.

USDA inspectors will attend the Celebration, as well as a delegation from the Humane Society of the United States. If anyone at the Celebration reports an abused horse to the county sheriff, he is bound by state law to investigate and, if questionable, issue a felony warrant.

The 75th Annual Celebration promises to be exciting, indeed.

royexum@aol.com


Sterling Jetton Is The Best Choice - And Response

I am writing this letter in support of a true, longtime public servant, Sterling Jetton. Sterling worked his way through the ranks of the Assessor's Office under great leadership from former Assessors Claude Ramsey and Bill Bennett. He knows how to run the office of Assessor and has the support of his former leaders which speaks volumes for his ability to organize and to lead effectively. ... (click for more)

Gays Get 7 Percent Marriage Licenses In Hamilton County, 2 Percent Elsewhere - And Response (3)

More than a hundred people in a homosexual relationship have received marriage licenses from Hamilton County clerk Bill Knowles.  The licenses were issued from June 26 through Feb. 3, according to a county spreadsheet.  The rush to homosexual nuptials was the U.S. supreme court’s publication of the Obergefell v. Hodges opinion, which is generally said to have ... (click for more)

County School Board Considers "Best Practices Audit" On Compliance With Board Policies

The County School Board is considering carrying out a "Best Practices Audit" to determine if board policies are filtering down to the school level. Board member Greg Martin said members of the Superintendent's Student Leadership Council told him that only a fraction of students are familiar with board policies on bullying and other topics. Steve Highlander, another board member, ... (click for more)

Several Central City Schools Overcrowded, School Board Is Told

All the county school overcrowding is not out in the fast-growing East Brainerd and Ooltewah sections, school board members were told Thursday. Several central city schools are far above capacity. East Lake Elementary - with 655 students and a capacity of 493 students - is at 133 percent occupancy. Calvin Donaldson, Orchard Knob Elementary and East Side Elementary also are ... (click for more)

Tyner Overcomes Central's Hot Start To Claim 47-42 Win

Central raced to a 12-0 lead, but decided to sit back and enjoy Senior Night. Tyner went to work. Tyner battled for 29-plus minutes before taking its first lead, fought off every challenge Central could muster down the stretch and knocked off the District 6-2A regular season champions, 47-42, Thursday night at Central High School. “Central came out clicking on all ... (click for more)

Hawks Alexander, Walker Invited To NBA All-Star Weekend

Hamilton Heights Christian Academy announced today that varsity basketball players Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, both nationally ranked juniors, will take part in the NBA All-Star weekend in Toronto, Canada. Alexander has been chosen to participate in the NBA’s second Basketball without Borders Global camp. Players are selected based on their outstanding ... (click for more)