By Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
One of the Tennessee Walking Horses seized from a Maryville, Tenn., barn lay moaning on its side, in too much pain to stand, a rescuer said.
At least one more limped along, dried epoxy irritating the quick of its hoof - kind of like a pebble in a tight shoe. Several others' legs were wrapped in cellophane, a technique unscrupulous trainers use to trap burning chemicals.
Another spring Tennessee Walking Horse season, another round of horrifying images, another trainer due in court on animal abuse charges.
Larry Wheelon hasn't entered a plea on his one count of aggravated cruelty to livestock, the result of a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation last month. With 19 horses in the care of animal rescue groups - healing and awaiting results of swab tests on their legs - more could come, said Gino Bachman, president of the Blount County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which aided in the case.
Wheelon hasn't returned several messages left seeking comment, but he issued a statement to a walking horse trade magazine vigorously disputing the charges. He's resigned from the Walking Horse Trainers' Association board and ethics committee and from the East Tennessee Trainers' Association presidency. He's suspended from his job as a AAA-rated horse show judge.
Wheelon's case echoes last year's industry-rocking scandal involving famed Tennessee Walking Horse trainer Jackie McConnell, an industry fixture captured in undercover video beating and overseeing the chemical burning of horses.
The Humane Society of the United States video went viral after its May 2012 release and, a few months later, McConnell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the federal Horse Protection Act. He faces a July trial in Fayette County on 22 counts of animal cruelty related to the same video.
The swirl of action and emotion around his case hasn't died down.
In the wake of McConnell's arrest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new rules over horse industry groups that handle show inspections. That prompted a lawsuit by Shelbyville's most prominent such group, S.H.O.W., claiming they're unfair. The case is still pending in a Fort Worth, Texas, federal court.
McConnell's name received frequent mention in the debate over a Tennessee bill that would have banned long-term animal-abuse investigations by private citizens - like the one that exposed McConnell - by forcing them to turn videos over to police within 48 hours. Its sponsor claimed it was unrelated to McConnell's case, but either way, Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed it Monday, citing constitutional problems.
Like Wheelon, McConnell's excommunication from the sport came swiftly, his former colleagues denouncing him as a rogue.
Wheelon's career is less storied, but a database kept by the nonprofit industry group Friends of Sound Horses indicate similar training methods. McConnell was cited by horse show inspectors several times for soring - a practice that covers a wide range of illegal injury to horses' hooves or legs to accentuate the breed's naturally longer, higher gait.
The better the gait, the more shows won, the more valuable the horse and more popular the trainer.
Wheelon garnered 14 violations for soring, scarring and other problems dating from 1991 to June of last year, the kind that typically result in fines and suspensions. Scarring indicates horses that may have been sored in the past but aren't actively being abused.
'Most shows have been up'
If last year's developments paint a picture of an industry under fire, that's news to Mike Inman, CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. One industry calendar lists 52 shows nationwide in May, with similar numbers in June and July.
"Our shows, as far as entries, have done well year-over-year," Inman said. "Most shows have been up."
They're all a warmup for the Celebration, held the last 11 days of August. Thousands of walking horse owners, trainers and fans converge on Shelbyville for the sport's premier event.
Inman said he's reserving judgment on Wheelon until the case is finished.
The sport is facing tough financial times, he concedes. The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association website bears an April 24 announcement that it cut employees' pay and hours by 20 percent. S.H.O.W., which once had its own office, moved in with the Celebration.
That's not because of bad press, Inman said, but because people have countless options for spending disposable income and spare time in a still-lagging economy. Breed registries are down across the board, he said.
That's correct, said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States and himself a Tennessee Walking Horse owner. But there's more to it.
"The walking horse industry is suffering from years of negativity around this abuse, and it has scared or chased some people away," he said. "The number of people who are willing to participate and spend good money on a pastime supposed to be enjoyable and risk getting a federal citation in the process is shrinking, and for good reason."
The case against Wheelon
This time, Wheelon faces more than a citation. The criminal charges against him are the result of a tipster, said Bachman of the Blount County SPCA.
"It's been rumored for years that Larry Wheelon was involved in horse soring, but there was never any real proof until someone approached a USDA agent and reported what she saw in the barn," he said. "(Wheelon) had 27 horses. Veterinarians said only 19 had been sored. The other eight we left in there.
"The ones we seized can see outside on all four sides of the stall, they get fresh bedding, the stalls are cleaned twice a day. They're getting good feed and hay and good light."
The Humane Society of the United States is footing the bill for all that plus veterinary and farrier care, which Bachman said his group could never afford for that many horses.
The Blount County prosecutor in Wheelon's case, Ellen Berez, declined to comment except to say a court apearance on it, originally set for today, was delayed. A U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General spokesman said he couldn't confirm his agency's involvement, although special agent Julie McMillan of its Nashville office signed the April 25 complaint against Wheelon.
Last week, the Humane Society of the United States held a wide-ranging Nashville news conference to discuss Wheelon and other issues in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.
The horses' prized gait was once shorthanded to "the Big Lick." Today, it's tough to find anyone in the industry calling it that after animal advocacy groups seized upon the description and worked to make it synonymous with abuse.
"There is nothing beautiful or wonderful about the Big Lick because of what it takes to get there," said Dr. Michael Blackwell, president of the online Humane Society University and a former University of Tennessee veterinary school dean.
Other officials urged support of a federal Horse Protection Act overhaul.
The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, H.R. 1518, would require federal inspectors at all Tennessee Walking Horse shows instead of just licensed private groups, the extent of the current requirement. It would ban the use of chains around the ankles and extra-tall horseshoes - or "packages" - that encourage the horse's gait but can hide objects meant to induce pain. It makes soring a felony and allows for three-year jail sentences.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis is a cosponsor. A similar measure Cohen introduced last year didn't gain traction.