Justice May be Blind but Photos Don’t Lie

I think there is no sense in forming an opinion when there is no evidence to form it on. If you build a person without any bones in him he may look fair enough to the eye, but he will be limber and cannot stand up; and I consider evidence to be the bones of an opinion.
— Mark Twain



When the news broke two years ago   about  reported horrors allegedly witnessed in  veteran walking horse trainer Larry Wheelon’s barn in Maryville, Tennessee, the hometown of Tennessee senior Senator Lamar Alexander, people were shocked.    When a grand jury went on to indict Mr. Wheelon for numerous counts of aggravated animal abuse, everyone,  including  animal welfare advocates, typically referred to by the performance horse supporters as “you people” or “uninformed fanatics”, and  the big lick fans that in private   may say   that Mr. Wheelon is one of the people in the industry whose time has come and gone but in public supported him to the fullest in his battle to avoid trial, all had OPINIONS about what they wanted to believe and thought they knew.


Thus, the   justice- for- the- horses faction  was shocked this year to see the charges against the veteran trainer dismissed as the result of a flawed search warrant, at least according to the judge who presided in the case, while performance horse elements breathed a sigh of relief: after Jimmy McConnell and Barney Davis, yet another abuse conviction centered around a performance trainer could not be absorbed.   


However, Mr. Wheelon, feeling , no doubt, vindicated,  is now using the legal system, as is his right,  to have all his inventoried  property, including mustard oil, seized during the Maryville raid along with other hard evidence   collected from his facility,  returned to him.  The living victims , again as a result of a ruling from a Blount County judge, had long since been returned to their respective owners or to Mr. Wheelon himself.


The fact- based  evidence in the case never made an appearance at trial before a jury.  But,  thanks to the federal Freedom of Information Act ( FOIA),  the photos and chemical swab results that would have been entered into the court record are available to anyone wanting  to take a look at what was going on within the walls of Mr. Wheelon’s business, which he later claimed was a private facility, not open to the public.  Pictures and chemical analysis reports don’t lie.


As a matter of opinion,  if it was possible for Justice to weep from beneath her blindfold, what happened through the legal process that sent  Wheelon back to his “business”   is one of the times when tears are  appropriate.  If you haven’t seen the evidence that was collected,  access the photos and the chemical results by copying and pasting the link , because you need to see what the FOIA request produced: http://blog.humanesociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Wheelon-case-file.pdf


And, as  a matter of opinion, if it was possible for the walking horse industry to blush, knowing that they put Mr. Wheelon into a Celebration sponsored horse show center ring this fall as a horse show judge,  the evidence file should be enough to make some faces in leadership red, but don’t wait up for that to happen. 

Recently, The Dodo ran an excellent piece about the Wheelon affair entitled, A Heartbreaking Look Inside a “Big Lick” Training Barn.  Written by Keith Dane, HSUS vice president for equine protection,  the article  is reprinted here for public information.

Trainers who abuse their horses into performing the artificial high-stepping gait known as the “big lick” will go to great lengths to avoid detection and deny their crimes. We expect this from accused horse sorers, who use painful chemicals and devices on horses’ legs and hooves to gain an advantage in competitions. And the existing law to prevent soring has proven ineffective at slowing them down. One case in point is that of Blount County, Tennessee, horse trainer, Larry Wheelon, who faced plentiful and disturbing evidence but managed to walk away scot-free

The stomach-turning evidence was collected when the Blount County, Tenn., sheriff’s office, in conjunction with U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators, searched Wheelon’s barn in April 2013. The evidence was enough for a grand jury to indict Wheelon under Tennessee’s aggravated cruelty to livestock and conspiracy to commit aggravated cruelty to animals laws – 15 felony charges and three misdemeanors. However, in May 2015, based on a technicality, a Blount County judge granted Wheelon’s motion to suppress all evidence obtained during the search.

But while Wheelon may have succeeded in hiding the evidence in his state criminal trial, he can take no cover from the federal Freedom of Information Act. Under this act, The HSUS obtained more than 300 pages of sickening photographs and testimony revealing Wheelon’s barn to be a real house of horrors for horses.

Horse soring is the practice of applying caustic chemicals directly to the horses’ legs and then tightly wrapping them with plastic wrap and duct tape to cook the harsh substances into the flesh. Then metal chains are placed around the sensitive area, causing excruciating pain with every step. Pain-inducing shoeing methods and barbaric devices are also commonplace soring techniques.

On the day of the raid on Wheelon’s barn, it looked like a medieval torture chamber. The walls were lined with heavy logging chains and weighted shoes known as stacks. A shelf was packed with blistering agents, ranging from mustard oil, cinnamon oil and WD-40, to multiple unmarked substances, including one unlabeled jar containing a chemical mixture described by a stable hand as “tea, a powerful concoction of 10cc of cinnamon oil and approximately 200 cc of kerosene.”

Further evidence photos show horses with weeping open wounds on their ankles, and investigators witnessed chemicals leaking from the wrappings on some horses. Horses are seen standing in a “bucket stance” – an unnatural position where they tuck their legs beneath them in a desperate attempt to relieve the pain of simply standing still. One investigator notes, “Three horses were found lying down and moaning at different times of the day.”

The investigator further comments: “All of the horses reacted when I touched them with the sample swab. The scars were so inflamed and sore, that I could not get the swab down inside the crevices without the horses raring up.”

She goes on: “There was one horse, Broadway Joe that was so sore that when I tried to sample the left foot, he flipped his foot up and caught me with the pad. … Dr. Sutherland attempted to inspect him, but Broadway Joe wouldn’t let him get near his left foot.”

Based on these photos and reports, I can tell you that if there is a hell on earth for horses, Wheelon’s barn on the day of the raid was it. The horses were clearly suffering at the hands of their persecutors.

But Wheelon simply went on with business as usual. He continued to train and exhibit big lick walking horses and to be cited for breaking the law. While under indictment in July 2014, Wheelon was cited and paid a fine for bringing a sored horse to a show. And several of the horses whose soring injuries were so graphically documented in the evidence photos have turned up at shows, including the big lick industry’s premier event, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. In fact, The HSUS recently learned he is demanding the return of his seized soring implements, including a large container of mustard oil.

Sadly, soring of Tennessee walking horses remains rampant despite enforcement efforts by USDA and the work of The HSUS and others to expose and stamp out this cruel and illegal practice. The federal Horse Protection Act sought to put an end to it, but the law has proven too anemic to deter those who are hell-bent on carrying out criminal behavior.

The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, H.R. 3268/ S. 1121, is the only solution to finally end soring and give these horses the protections they so desperately need. This crucial legislation will amend the existing federal law to end the corrupt system of industry self-policing; ban the use of devices implicated in the practice of soring in Tennessee walking, racking and spotted saddle horses; strengthen penalties and make the act of soring a horse illegal.

Please take action now and urge your representatives in Congress to support the PAST Act.

A final note: It would be interesting to know if the 'professional' opinion of defense witness Dr. Bennett, the Shelbyville, Tennessee based performance horse industry veterinarian of choice and apologist for all things big lick, has  changed an iota  with the evidence of what was going on at Wheelon’s now available to the public. 

Dr. Bennett, you might remember, testified in court  that a horse standing in a bucket stance in one of the evidence photos was not an indication of soring practices but could have been the result of a misaligned tail set ( although the horse wasn’t wearing one in the photo). He also testified that although he had no knowledge of Wheelon’s prior Horse Protection Act violations that knowledge of   such a history would not have made any difference in his opinion regarding the Wheelon matter. 

Dr. Bennett would have to be a pretty limber person to continue to assert, now,  that what was done to these horses was simply misinterpreted or a matter of uninformed opinion, make no bones about that, but if it can be done, he is probably supple enough to be able to do it.