Walking horse trainer charged with aggravated cruelty after USDA raid
Larry Wheelon, a well-known member of the Tennessee walking horse circuit, was arrested and charged April 25 with one felony count of aggravated cruelty to livestock related to soring. The Blount County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) executed a search warrant that led to Wheelon’s arrest and the seizure of 19 horses from a barn in Maryville, Tenn.
“That same day we took those horses, he was arrested,” says Gino Bachman, president of the Blount County SPCA. “We worked hand in hand with them to do that.”
According to an affidavit from the Blount County General Sessions Court, investigators found during an April 18 search that horses had their legs wrapped in cellophane and leg wraps, which is indicative of chemical soring. All 27 horses in Wheelon’s care were swabbed for foreign substances, and 19 were found to be sore by a USDA veterinarian.
Wheelon is a member of the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association board of directors and a AAA-rated judge with S.H.O.W. Horse Inspection Organization. He has also reportedly been cited for numerous violations of the federal Horse Protection Act during the past 20 years. Wheelon did not respond to dvm360’s request for comment but did tell The Daily Times of Maryville, Tenn., that he did not sore horses by using caustic chemicals like mustard oil or kerosene.
USDA special investigator Julie McMillan, who when reached said she did not have clearance to speak about the case, stated in the affidavit that substances could be seen on the horses’ legs and a chemical odor was detected. Bachman, who accompanied McMillan on the raid, says lab tests have already confirmed the presence of caustic chemicals on the horses.
“He thinks because he’s putting on certain chemicals that it’s not illegal,” Bachman says. However, if Wheelon used cinnamon oil instead of mustard oil, for example, “cinnamon oil is just as bad,” he says. Several containers of chemicals, including mustard oil, were removed from the property, according to McMillan’s affidavit account.
Wheelon contends in The Daily Times that he was framed and that someone must have come in the barn the night before the raid to sore the horses. In fact, he says his veterinarian checked the horses before the raid and gave them a clean bill of health.
Bachman isn’t buying it. “He has to try to make it look like he didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “The evidence will prove he’s wrong.” Bachman says he talked with the veterinarian in question, who told him she hadn’t been out to the barn in a year—she only went out there a day after the raid to do Coggins testing.
The investigation will look at whether the veterinarian was compliant in the soring of horses and also ascertain the involvement of Wheelon’s employees. Although Wheelon is presently charged with only one count of felony animal cruelty, the number will likely increase—possibly to a count for each horse seized.
Bachman says the raid was a heartbreaking experience—the horses would jerk from the slightest touch of the USDA veterinarian. “It’s really difficult to fathom that someone would do what they did to these animals,” he says. “What they were doing with their hooves—they were keeping them in constant pain.”
Bachman was pleased to see the animals transported from the confines of the barn. “That’s what’s hard, to see these guys locked in a 12 by 12 stall,” he says. “They never get out to graze. Their eyes never get to see daylight. It’s heartbreaking to see these guys have to live like that. We got at least 19 out of there.”
Wheelon himself is out of the barn as well. The Carrie Harris Estate, from which Wheelon reportedly rented the barn, has served him with a detainer warrant May 2 listing “legal issues related to the care of animals” in order to remove him from the property and begin the legal process of eviction. Bachman says Wheelon has also been forced to retire from the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association, although he is still listed as a member of the board of directors on its website. “His world is crumbling around him,” Bachman says.
Recently, Jackie McConnell, a fellow Tennessee walking horse trainer, was indicted on 22 counts related to animal cruelty, including the torture and soring of horses in Fayette County, Tenn. If convicted, he faces a maximum term of three years in prison for each felony count and up to one year in prison for each misdemeanor.
Bachman says that in his experience, Wheelon and McConnell are not the exception but the rule in Tennessee walking horse circles. “They all cheat—or I should say, a lot of them cheat—but it’s just a matter of how much and when they get caught,” he says. He thinks more arrests and raids are coming. “We’ve already gotten tips of other places around.”
Wheelon is currently free on bond.