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.