Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.” Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Recently, in a news release that featured the faces of serial Horse Protection Act violators with both HIO tickets and federal cases, the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association, in co-operation with Charlie Green Stables, announced that it was coming to the assistance of 55 horses seized in Giles County, Tennessee, earlier in April.
By making a donation of two tons of horse feed to a non-profit rescue organization called Volunteer Equine Advocates based in Gallatin, Tennessee, the WHTA’s new president, Billy Young ( the long time trainer for the Sherman Family of Texas and Tennessee, presently involved in a case where the State of Tennessee is trying to obtain permanent control of two of their horses involved in abuse at Jackie McConnell’s Whitter Stables) was able to call attention to the WHTA Gives Back Program launched in 2014.
The program appears to have been begun in an attempt to re-brand an association whose members have been pilloried in the press and in other media, as far away as Australia, for the abusive training methods used in producing a big lick walking horse. The result of this exposure has been that horse show revenues, training fees, and sales have been spiraling downward and when things are headed down, common sense, as well as consulting firms, advise that doing something positive, even if in unrelated areas, helps to humanize and improve your image in the public eye.
The Trainers’ Association, never one to miss a chance to put a positive spin on the news, has, with this donation, piggybacked on a story of abuse being carried out, but never addressed in industry media, by Jeff Mitchell. Mitchell was a participant and award winner at the 2014 Celebration, who employed trainers belonging to the WHTA. He was a big lick supporter who sold a high dollar horse to a high dollar owner but still allowed 55 animals on his property to fall into such a condition of neglect that rescuers wept when they saw them standing in mud, urine, and feces, with neither food nor water in sight.
The story of the trainers’ association coming to the rescue failed to identify the owner of the abused horses, now charged with 55 felony counts of animal abuse, for the horrific conditions discovered in close proximity to the community where the annual Red Carpet Show of the South is held each year. It did not disclose that the starving horses are registered Tennessee Walking Horses and that many of the pregnant mares, bred to name brand stallions, were being used in a sort of primitive version of factory farming to produce young stock for potential sales to big lick enthusiasts. None of this is discussed in public, at least within the industry.
Instead, the story focused on a group of smiling men, Frankie Roark, Herbert Derickson, Larry Scott, proprietor, Charlie Green, Nathan Rymer, Eric Yokley, Brad Beard, Larry George, Jeff Green and Bill (Billy) Young, all standing by a stack of feed neatly piled on the porch of a local Shelbyville business. (To better identify these people run a search of the HPA violation public database and the USDA 7060 database, as well as Goggling USDA federal HPA cases. Cumulatively, it's likely this group has spent or has had spent on their behalf by owners or various funds more on fines and legal fees regarding their own horse activities than was spent buying two tons of feed.)
The story further noted that 55 horses were involved in a case of neglect and had been rescued and that the trainers through their Give Back program were stepping up to lend a hand. Able to ignore the obvious facts about what, where, when, and why regarding the need for the horses to be rescued and the follow-on need for non-profits to care for them, when the story did produce a fact, it got the fact wrong.
Fifty-five horses were not rescued from the site. One of them was in such horrible condition that it had to be euthanized on the spot.
Two tons does sound like a lot of groceries. It actually represents 80 50lb bags of a locally produced feed, which at the high end, has a retail cost of $16.00 per bag. That makes the total donation to the rescue that accepted the feed approximately $1, 280, before taxes, had cash been sent instead.
Cash donations are always preferred by equine rescue organizations, just as the Red Cross when dealing with natural disasters and tragedies prefers them. Rescues and non-profits alone know the sorts of medication and supplies, and, in this instance, feeds and supplements needed to nurse starving horses back to health. Pregnant mares and young stock, even when in good health, have different nutritional needs than other categories of horses. Feed is good but not all feed is the right feed.
Whether it was the right feed or the wrong feed, 80 sacks is only a drop in the bucket of need that Mr. Mitchell’s actions created but, for the WHTA, a stack of sacks is better advertising than a picture of a check written for what would be a small amount that wouldn’t have made so big an impression . Industry media constantly and consistently reminds its readers that the HSUS purportedly does not spend money supporting local shelters or assisting local animals but it somehow forgot to mention, even while praising the Trainers' donation, that the HSUS pledged $16,000 to Tennessee rescues as soon as the animals were seized. The money was to be used specifically to assist them in caring for these same horses.
The story at hand was about the WHTA donation, but the larger story is, should the rescues involved in this effort have accepted donations of any kind from this particular group ? Although the situations are different, the story line is the same as the propriety of accepting donations from the Mississippi Charity Horse Show. In that instance, a grassroots effort provided information to the Batson Children’s Hospital and urged its officials to consider if charities should accept funds, no matter the need, from individuals and activities where illegal activity, like animal abuse, is part of the program. Batson, after reviewing all the available information, declined to do so.
In the urgency of immediate need, help from any group may seem providential, but as our mothers told us, “always consider the source”. Accepting a donation from the WHTA, an organization that continues to allow HPA violators to serve on its boards and allows HPA violators to be judges by showing in front of them, puts the good name of a non-profit or a charity in too close association with a tainted organization.
Further, it allows the organization with an image to rehabilitate to capitalize through association on the reputations of rescues held in high regard. In creating a positive press opportunity, using this donation, intended, at least in part, to mitigate in the minds of the public the stories about animal abuse with which they have been associated well before they started “giving back” in 2014, the WHTA had everything to gain and nothing to lose.
With former head of the WHTA ethics committee, Larry Wheelon, presently battling through his attorney to have evidence suppressed in his own felony horse abuse case, a look at some of the other “leaders” of the WHTA and their own histories for violations of federal laws for soring horses should be the first thing that is done by any non-profit involved with equines before so much as a nickel or a bale of hay is accepted.
Eighty sacks of feed, like 30 pieces of silver, can buy a result that’s good for the WHTA but is not so good for the reputation of the recipient. It will provide a few meals for the 54 horses still left standing but the cost of that feed comes with an additional ethical problem for any rescue that accepts it, a concern that could , understandably, have been overlooked in the face of immediate and overwhelming need but at a price that can not be overlooked. VEA chose to take the donation; Horse Haven Inc., and Safe Haven Rescue, both of Tennessee, which have also taken in some of the Mitchell herd, came to the opposite decision.
Both Safe Harbor Rescue and Horse Haven decided that where money or feed comes from is as important as finding the resources that are needed to care for the horses they rescued. They have chosen to decline donations that come attached to individuals representing organizations actively involved in a business where abusive practices involving horses are alleged.
These practices continue to be documented through USDA 7060s for foreign substance violations, the taking of information from horse shows by USDA VMOs for allegations of violating the Horse Protection Act, and for citations issued by HIOs showing bilateral and unilateral soring violations and scar rule violations, as well as horses being sent back to the trailers for being “bad image”.
The public depends on non-profits to ensure that funds from questionable sources do not become co-mingled with funds from donors whose sole intent is to do a good thing. Public benefit cannot and should not be financed through money that comes in any way from private wrongdoing.
Name and reputation means everything in today’s modern world; thus, when an organization with a compromised reputation wants to, out of the “kindness” of its collective heart, “give” a non-profit something, like Batson’s Children’s Hospital, the wise decision is to disassociate from all controversial gifts until the practices that surround the controversy have been resolved.
The WHTA is not a disinterested group, giving something while expecting nothing in return. There is no free lunch and that remains true even when rescues are scrambling to care for starving horses. Consider the source of the menu and then be careful where you choose to sit in the cafeteria.