THETA, TN - Radar and I were talking yesterday – yes, Radar and I do talk – if you’ve never talked with mule before, then you have a lot to look forward. Radar was hearing people talk about a new guy, Adam McCauley, writing about Tennessee Walking Horses for something called Al Jazeera America. He asked me what it was about? I told him best as I could tell that it was Like the BBC, and it covered news world wide, but now it had come to America and it would be covering the United States just like CNN or Fox News.
Radar said he heard Adam McCauley was a Yankee. I told him that was wrong – Adam is a Canadian who went to school in the United States, and his family was originally from Scotland. Radar was impressed, well as much as Radar can be impressed. So I guess you along with me and Radar will see what this Adam McCauley guy is going to write in the days, weeks and months ahead about the Tennessee Walking Horse.
HERE IS ADAM MCCAULEY’S FIRST ARTICLE
Tennessee horse country tries to fight off persistent abuse allegations
by Adam McCauley November 9, 2013 8:30AM ET
A district attorney might take up a felony case against a decorated horse trainer
A walking horse exhibits the breed’s characteristic high-stepping gait at 2012′s Tennessee Walking Horse National CelebrationAlyson Wright/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP
MARYVILLE, Tenn. — One morning last April, Julie McMillan, a special investigator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approached a squat, wooden-slat barn here, where she believed horses were being abused by their trainer. It was a warm day and the barn’s red metal doors had been left open to allow the light breeze to cool down the 27 walking horses stabled inside.
The barn had been rented by Larry Wheelon, a 68-year-old horse trainer who’d received eight previous citations for horse abuse. Previous legal statutes in Tennessee limited abuse charges to misdemeanors, but an amendment passed in July of last year has made it possible to bring felony charges against individuals who routinely abuse animals. McMillan, a 23-year veteran of the USDA’s office of investigations, arrived that morning, posing as a prospective renter of a nearby residence.
She had been collecting complaints about Wheelon for more than a year. Wheelon’s horses, she’d been told, had been repeatedly “sored,” an illegal practice that involves either applying caustic chemicals or inflicting physical damage to a horse’s legs and hooves with the intention to produce pain. This pain allows trainers to change the animal’s natural gait into a high-stepping prance. The more exaggerated the step, the larger the cash prize at walking-horse competitions.
When McMillan peeked into the pens of the dimly lit barn, she saw layers of cellophane, cotton swabs and duct tape wrapped around the legs and feet of the horses. Some of the animals were laying on their sides, while others seemed to be groaning in pain, according to the affidavit McMillan filed in county court later that afternoon.
The next day, she returned to the barn to collect additional evidence, joined by two officers from the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, a USDA veterinarian and representatives from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and a local organization, Horse Haven. While the officers removed unlabeled bottles of chemicals, the veterinarian, Bart Sutherland, examined the legs of the 27 horses, palpating the tissue at the edge of their hooves to check for signs of tenderness or pain. He then tested their legs and hooves for chemical residue.
“The (horses) were in so much pain,” Kellie Bachman, president of the Blount County SPCA, told Al Jazeera America. “To unwrap their legs we were having to get rubber gloves because our hands were burning. Our eyes were burning. I haven’t seen anything like it before.”
A week later, Wheelon was arrested and 19 of the 27 horses were removed from both his care and the county, by agents of the USDA, with help from the Blount County SPCA.
Advocates expect that in December, the district attorney will present evidence gathered in the Wheelon case before a grand jury. (The district attorney’s office declined to comment.) If the case leads to a conviction in circuit court, Wheelon would be the first horse trainer to receive prison time under Tennessee’s new felony law; a guilty verdict carries up to six years behind bars. Wheelon and his list of clients strongly deny the charges, saying that organizations like the HSUS and the USDA have targeted the trainer on erroneous charges.
“It would be a strong wake-up call for the walking-horse industry,” said Gino Bachman, co-president and cruelty investigator for the Blount County SPCA, adding that the industry has routinely covered up illegal actions by its premier trainers. “This case has the potential to bring others forward to share their knowledge about the industry’s widespread abuse.”
Reputation under fire
An X-ray image of a hoof fitted with a shoe, pads and nails to add weight and possibly pressure to the hoof and exaggerate the horse’s high step. USDA
The Tennessee walking horse, first bred in the late 19th century by crossing several breeds, including the East Coast Canadian Pacers and Spanish Mustangs from Texas, is known for its long, smooth gait. In Tennessee towns like Shelbyville and Maryville, walking horses have a rich history: Schoolteachers provide inexpensive riding lessons on their own farms, show horses take the field during halftime of high-school football games, and children often visit walking-horse stables on class field trips. You don’t have to look hard to find license plates featuring a horse’s rearing silhouette, and locals often say there are two types of people in this world: horse people and the others.
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, a horse show that stretches over 11 days, was first held in Shelbyville in 1939. Organizers say it generates $38 million in profits each year for Shelbyville and surrounding Bedford County. But the industry’s reputation has been under attack in recent years.
I am too old, too tired, too upset to put up with this anymore
This year, participation was down nearly 30 percent from 2012 and 600 horses subsequently scratched — failed to show up for the national competition. The reason, according to many, is the mounting pressure and scrutiny from animal-rights groups concerned about abuse within the industry. Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Human Society and a former walking-horse trainer, said the no-shows were likely the result of stronger penalties adopted by industry regulators just days before the event, including longer suspensions and steeper fines for trainers whose horses showed signs of soring.
Attendance at the event has dropped, too. For some spectators, the allegations of abuse have soured the Celebration experience; others say the interference of federal regulators is to blame.
“Sales have been down, and … we have been forced to increase fees, including our grounds fee,” Mike Inman, the event’s chief executive, told local media prior to the 2013 Celebration, noting that organizers lost an estimated $376,000 in total revenue over the last two years.
To combat the negative press, Celebration organizers hired Purple Strategies, a communications firm based in Houston to advise them on their public-relations strategy. The organizers made sure to distance the event from the industry’s most notorious offenders, permanently banning trainers such as Barney Davis and Jackie McConnell, whose past abuse of horses has garnered attention in local as well as national media. In 2012, Davis was the first person convicted under the HPA in more than 20 years. That same year, McConnell avoided jail time by pleading guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty, after a video documenting the abuse of his horses was released by HSUS.
Yet this year’s event generated new controversy as Honors, an award-winning horse, was disqualified after USDA investigators said they found signs of soring. The crowd booed when the disqualification was announced. That same night, Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the HSUS, found his picture taped to a garbage bin in the Celebration’s staging areas, he says.
Some trainers say the USDA is indiscriminate about whom it targets and that the Tennessee walking-horse community has cleaned up over the last two decades. These trainers insist that a few “bad apples” have sullied the industry’s reputation.
“I am too old, too tired, too upset to put up with this anymore,” Terry Dotson, a longtime trainer and past president of the Performance Show Horse Association, told The Tennessean newspaper minutes after he withdrew all of his horses from this year’s Celebration. USDA officials disqualified his horse, Guns and Roses, which placed third in a marquee event.
But critics say the walking-horse industry’s track record of abuse is inexcusable. When a trainer wants to ‘improve’ a horse’s gait, he or she applies kerosene, mustard oil or other chemicals to horses’ skin. This can lead to infections, cause horses to lose their hooves and even trigger chronic stress colic, which can be fatal. According to animal-rights groups, trainers also hide evidence of their abuse under the horses’ wraps, chains or other accoutrements of competition dress. Many also apply topical analgesics to temporarily numb the areas they expect investigators to examine for tenderness or pain. Because show horses spend a majority of their lives in private barns and only scant minutes at competitions exposed to USDA or industry investigators, the system is skewed in trainers’ favor.
In 1970, Congress passed the Horse Protection Act (HPA), making soring a federal offense and empowering the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to investigate such abuses. But investigators lack the resources to adequately handle their workload. APHIS is also charged with investigating puppy mills, the sale of exotic pets and other types of animal abuse. According to a recent internal audit, its budget was only sufficient to send investigators to about 6 percent of the 463 sanctioned walking-horse shows in 2007.
A horse taken from the Maryville farm Blount County SPCA
Tennessee has had the highest rate of HPA offenses nationwide, with more than 3,500 violations, or 32 percent of all cases, since 1986, when Stopsoring.com, which charts HPA violations, began compiling these records. But recent federal legislation, introduced last April in the House and last August in the Senate, would strengthen the HPA. The proposed legislation would require the USDA to assign an investigator to each competition, prohibit the use of chains and heavy pads on competing horses and strengthen penalties against any individual caught soring animals. Currently, the House bill counts 224 co-sponsors — enough to move the bill to the floor for a vote. The amendment, if passed, will be strengthened by further allotments made in last year’s agriculture appropriations bill, which increased annual funding for HPA enforcement from $500,000 to $700,000.
Some industry officials say the proposed changes are too harsh. Speaking on behalf of the Celebration, Mike Inman, last year’s chief executive, said the proposal, known widely as the Whitfield Amendment, would “destroy horse showing” and the walking-horse registry. If the language of the new bill “eliminated all weighted shoes,” he added, “there would be no incentive to breed for show horses.”
Animal-rights supporters say these positions are tantamount to an admission of guilt: If the industry can’t survive without measures like this, they add, it shouldn’t survive at all. Today, animal advocates hope the new felony charge in the Tennessee legal code will shift the focus away from monitoring competitions and provide special agents like Julie McMillan more power to confront alleged abusers where they live and work.
Animal-rights supporters say these positions are tantamount to an admission of guilt: If the industry can’t survive without abuse, they add, it shouldn’t survive at all. Today, animal advocates hope the new felony charge in the Tennessee legal code will shift the focus away from monitoring competitions and provide special agents like Julie McMillan more power to confront alleged abusers where they live and work. Animal-rights supporters say these positions are tantamount to an admission of guilt: If the industry can’t survive without abuse, they add, it shouldn’t survive at all. Today, animal advocates hope the new felony charge in the Tennessee legal code will shift the focus away from monitoring competitions and provide special agents like Julie McMillan more power to confront alleged abusers where they live and work. Animal-rights supporters say these positions are tantamount to an admission of guilt: If the industry can’t survive without abuse, they add, it shouldn’t survive at all. Today, animal advocates hope the new felony charge in the Tennessee legal code will shift the focus away from monitoring competitions and provide special agents like Julie McMillan more power to confront alleged abusers where they live and work.
I’m a 68-year-old man. Who is going to hire me now?
Wheelon’s case now hinges on whether the district attorney will take the case before a grand jury. In August, a county court dismissed the charges against the trainer after the prosecution failed to show probable cause. The reason, according to the assistant district attorney, rested on a court technicality. Bart Sutherland, the USDA’s veterinary medical officer, was disqualified from testifying after he was mistakenly led into the courtroom, unbeknownst to the judge and defense, and heard testimony before he could take the stand.
The lead prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Ellen Berez, told Maryville’s “The Daily Times” that Sutherland would have testified that injuries found on Wheelon’s horses indicated this was “one of the worst cases we’ve seen.”
Throughout the hearing, Wheelon’s attorneys argued that the prosecution had insufficient evidence to prove any of Wheelon’s horses were abused and called for the case to be dismissed. On Aug. 15, the judge granted the dismissal.
In the months that preceded the hearing, some members of the walking-horse community maintained significant pressure against the USDA and the SPCA, the groups say. Many of the horse owners in attendance at the trial were adamant about the return of their property. “I would receive calls saying, ‘You know my horse is insured for $350,000 dollars, right? And if anything happened to your barn you would be responsible for that cost,’” said Larry McMillan, Julie McMillan’s former husband, who was selected by the USDA and SPCA to house and care for the 19 seized horses.
Wheelon, meanwhile, says the bad press alone has ruined his reputation. “I’m a 68-year-old man. Who is going to hire me now?” he told Al Jazeera America in September. Wheelon says the allegations will likely cost him the majority of his clients.
Julie McMillan, likewise, says the hearing was the hardest week of her life. “I was ready to give up — professionally and emotionally,” she said. On the stand, Wheelon’s attorney called McMillan’s personal and professional integrity into question — a charge that has since been seized upon by some supporters of the walking-horse community, making her a target of their continuing anger. Throughout the case, however, she has maintained that the USDA had the right to investigate Wheelon: “I believe, given the evidence we collected, that he’s guilty of the crime,” she said.
Lost in the legal discussion is mention of the horses themselves, say Kellie Bachman and her husband, Gino, a retired officer with the Drug Enforcement Agency. On Nov. 8, the last of the 19 animals were returned to their owners, per instructions from a Blount County judge, from the undisclosed location where they were being held.
While the horses are in good condition today, Gino and Kellie Bachman say that wasn’t the case when the animals were taken into custody last April. Some had trouble walking in the open, even when led by handlers, says Kellie Bachman. Others were unable to graze on their own.
“Since they were 10 months old they’ve never been allowed to run; they’ve been locked in a 12-foot-by-12-foot stall, primarily in the dark,” she said. “Unlike other crimes against animals, this isn’t a case of neglect or starvation. They were tortured, pure and simple.”
I imagine you are going to be reading some more of Adam McCauley as things move along.