Postmortem: Abuse in Tennessee Walking Horse community
I nearly missed Gino Bachman’s phone call as I pulled off the highway and into an IHOP parking lot. My cellphone, which I thought I’d stashed somewhere on the passenger seat, was lost amongst a scarf, camera bag, and an escaped notebook. As I searched the interior of the car, everything was cast in the dull blue glow of the IHOP sign.
“Don’t go in the restaurant,” Gino said, as I answered my phone on the last ring. “John just got off the 75 and should be there in 25 minutes. I’ll meet you there in 15.”
“There” was the parking lot of a neighboring Home Depot. After I inched my rental car into one of the many open spaces, I looked at the clock —5:56 am.
A little after 6:12 am, Gino pulled in beside me—the engine of his Chevy Silverado vibrating the Blount County SPCA decals that adorned both the driver and passenger side doors. He nodded a quiet welcome as I climbed into the cabin of the truck.
By 6:20, Gino and I arrived at Weigal gas station just outside of Maryville. There, under garish industrial floodlights, sat a 44-foot long white trailer towed by a heavy-duty black pick-up. Inside, ‘John’ and his assistant, ‘Audrey’, greeted Gino with tired smiles (The couple refused to provide their real names).
Their trailer held the five remaining Tennessee Walking Horses, which had been seized from Larry Wheelon’s barn the previous April. During the first return —of seven horses the previous weekend— John was confronted by some of the horses’ owners at the IHOP in town. This morning, he’d stopped to remove the vehicle’s license plates and identifying stickers — an attempt to preserve the anonymity required to safeguard the animals they often transported for the Human Society of the United States (HSUS).
Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled in lead of the large trailer on the highway, joined moments later by a county sheriff’s department cruiser, which would serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, our small convoy creeping closer to the point of exchange, I noticed the digital clock read 6:43. I then typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”
I’d written that sentence before, more than three months earlier, after receiving an email from a good friend, fellow Columbia alumnus and astounding writer, Addie Berard. She asked if I interested in an animal cruelty investigation. I said, “It depends,” but mentioned I’d be happy to make the connection and discuss details with her contact.
The story, which was published last Saturday, focused on a case brought against a celebrated horse trainer and subsequently dismissed in Maryville, Tennessee. Since then, government officials, lawyers, community supporters, and industry critics have been locked in battle: over culture, law, and how we should treat the animals caught in the middle.
Two weeks later, around midnight, I was looking out a dark, fogged plane window as it taxied into the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was destined for a small town I’d never visited, in a state I’d never travelled to, in a region I knew little about.
Less than 20 miles from Knoxville, the small town of Maryville lies on the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, surrounded by vast tracts of pasture and farmland. Here, in a town of 27,000, Tennessee walking horses have a rich history: School teachers provide inexpensive riding lessons on their own farms, show horses take the field during half-time celebrations at high school football games and children often visit Walking Horse stables on class field trips. Visitors don’t have to look hard to find license plates plastered with the rearing silhouette of a horse, the Walking Horse icon, or overhear residents who eagerly divide the town into two types of people: “horse people” and the others. It was here that Larry Wheelon’s case came before a county judge.
Larry Wheelon is a 68-year-old horse trainer who operated a stable (above) in Maryville. One morning last April, a federal agent, posing undercover, entered the premises looking for evidence that would corroborate a series of tips she’d collected over the previous year. The agent, a 23-year veteran of the service named Julie McMillan, found enough information that morning to file an affidavit with the county judge, gaining approval for a subsequent search of the premise, and then —a week after that— a seizure of 19 horses from the location.
The seizure set off alarms throughout the industry. Wheelon, who has had between eight and 15 previous citations for alleged abuse, was well connected throughout the walking horse community. At the time of the seizure, he was serving as a director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and —perhaps most worryingly— on the association’s ethics committee.
But the history of the Tennessee walking horse is suffuse with instances of abuse dealt to the celebrated animals. Specifically, Larry Wheelon was alleged to have “sored” some of the horses under his care —an act in violation of a federal statute. Soring involves the application of chemicals or action devices to the legs and feet of the animal. The chemicals, which are often caustic, are used to burn and sensitize the horses’ legs. A trainer can then use this associated pain to modify the way the horse walks. When trained in this fashion, the walking horses’ smooth gait is morphed into a high-stepping stride, known in the industry as “The Big Lick.”
At competitions this hectic-looking prance is associated with higher scores and, throughout the competition’s history, greater likelihood of victory. For more than 30 years starting in 1939, the incentives for trainers were clear: if you could sore an animal effectively, you could win both money and prestige. According to some, it was always in trainer’s interest to abuse the animals he was charged to care for.
In 1970, regulations in the industry began to change. In a bill, authored by Maryland’s Senator Joseph Tydings, “soring” was classified a federal offense under the Horse Protection Act. The bill empowered the USDA to investigate instances of abuse within the Tennessee walking horse, and other gaited horse, communities throughout the country.
But enforcement was always the challenge for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which lacked the resources to properly investigate all allegations of abuse. In response, the USDA outsourced some of the regulation to individuals denoted as Qualified Designated Persons, or QDPs, that could be hired directly by SHOW organizations to police the entrants at their events. Outsourcing responsibility to these regulators quickly led to conflicts of interest.
These SHOW organizations were private companies contracted by organizers of horse competitions. In an internal USDA audit in 2010, SHOW-sponsored regulators were found to have recorded lower rates of violations when compared to USDA investigators working the same events. The USDA’s internal investigators noted that the “conflicts of interest” between these QDPs and show organizers led to institutionalized willful blindness.
As described to me, the following situation could easily occur: Trainer A brings their horse in for final inspection before taking the field at a competition. Fellow trainer B, who is also horse breeder, is charged with conducting the examination. Trainer B knows that Trainer A has purchased Trainer B’s colts each season, and will likely continue to do so, provided there aren’t any untoward developments over the remaining shows. Perhaps Trainer B notices something strange about the look or feel of one of Trainer A’s horses —perhaps the legs are a little tender. What are the chances Trainer B will void an upcoming sale by reporting the details of this discovery?
These steady drips of corruption slowly wore away the legitimacy of the SHOW system, and led the USDA auditors to recommend the program be suspended. It wasn’t.
Over time, the low rumbling of continuing abuses became louder. But allegations could only get investigators so far. With the number of people involved and the amount of money at stake, there were few witnesses or participants willing to talk publicly about the industry. Unless, of course, they got caught first.
That’s why the stories of Barney Davis and Jackie McConnell were so critical. Davis, who ended up serving jail time for violating the terms of his parole, has since spoken publicly about the practice of “soring” among trainers today. Jackie McConnell, who was secretly videotaped by The Humane Society of the United States abusing his horses in 2012, pled guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty—and avoiding prison time as a result. Their message: the abuse continues.
When I arrived in Maryville, my goal was to understand the case against Wheelon. Among the many I spoke to, attempted to speak to, cornered at road-side restaurants, or interrupted outside the local court house, the audience seemed divided: The case against Wheelon was either a conspiracy brought by the USDA, HSUS and the SPCA in order to set a precedent, or it was the just deserts for a man who had made his career abusing animals for personal benefit. There seemed to be no middle ground.
What I learned, however, was how a story can so quickly be lost to the so-called “talking heads” and that the reporter, often, can do little to avoid it. For instance, my strategy in Maryville was to speak with everyone who might have a comment on the case —from the county’s district attorney to the server at the local Huddle House, a road-side diner. What became clear, however, was a fundamental miscommunication between those involved in the case, and the reporter (me).
On one side, Wheelon’s supporters presumed that my presence in Maryville was, in fact, a product of my bias. They believed that I had shown up at the behest of the HSUS and USDA to try and proverbially hang Wheelon before a jury could. I was, to them, an outsider who had already taken sides. For Wheelon’s critics —which included the USDA, HSUS, SPCA and a number of other organizations and individuals— my interest in the case was a mixed blessing: publicity might be valuable in the fight to bring Wheelon to justice, but there was a hesitation about being open and honest with a member of the press. Recognizing that both sides were so polarized —and acting line with their own interests— my role was defined for me, and not by me.
My attempt to offset the imbalance often bore little fruit: calls, messages, notes, and impromptu arrivals among Wheelon supporters were not often welcome. Most of my attempts at contact were rebuffed, or met with “no comment” —and in some cases a clear charge that I was in some way “working for the enemy.” It was that charge that angered me most.
And throughout the reporting process, I was —with few alternatives— forced to rely on many sources who had a clear interest in seeing Wheelon found guilty. I recognized the challenges for both parties battling in the press, but the experience only affirmed my belief in the strength of openness and disclosure: a reporter can provide a clearer evocation of a situation only if both parties are willing to share what they know, how they know it, and why others (outsiders who might read such an article) should know it.
For that reason, if the article for Al Jazeera America seems weighted in favor of the prosecution, of the critics of Wheelon and what he allegedly represents (i.e. abuse towards horses in the industry), it is due to the countless questions I asked of others that went unanswered.
In the trips I made to Tennessee, I consulted the court record, interviewed a wide range of sources, and tried to corroborate testimony from sources I knew had lied to me in the past. I worked to tease out the small details —whether the gate to Wheelon’s barn was open or latched the day Julie McMillan, posing undercover, entered— from the more polarized testimonies of “He’s a guilty man” or “They’ve got the wrong man.” These comments were offered in knee-jerk fashion by most people I spoke with.
I even tracked down Wheelon personally, asking for his own thoughts or feelings on the conduct and practice of the USDA. The response: I don’t want to be quoted. I don’t want to talk. But I’m being persecuted by over-reaching federal organizations.
What I failed to include in the article, and this is largely the result of editorial taste and space, were the challenges in cooperation between members of the prosecution. Wheelon’s case was originally handled by Assistant D.A. Ellen Berez and, since the dismissal in August, is now being handled by another assistant —a young and, according to some, more “aggressive” lawyer.
My reporting also unearthed differences in opinion, and outright tension, between the USDA special investigator Julie McMillan and D.A. Berez. Some of these issues seemed to typify the challenges between federal and local authorities: territory, leadership, latitude and the willingness to take risks are all a function of an individual’s position. These two women appeared to have different theories as to how this case should have been handled.
In fairness, some of the blame for continued confusion or unrest in the case, also lies with the USDA. Their policy, to abstain from commenting on in-progress cases, was a liability for anyone trying to carefully account for the charges against Wheelon. Because the initial hearing had been dismissed, it was —in theory— a closed case, and some of the vague claims and allegations required evidence that the USDA was simply unwilling to provide.
Without disclosing some of the most basic facts, the USDA missed an opportunity to disarm critics who used this absence of information as signs of a conspiracy. Amid silence, it was possible to suggest the USDA was out on a witch-hunt, that they were creating evidence instead of compiling it, and that their case had no merit.
Personally, it was only in the last three days before publication that I, finally gaining access to details omitted from the public record, felt comfortable committing my accounting of the events to the page.
On November 7, at the Hooters restaurant in Maryville, I met with a source who, for their own safety and interest, I will not name. We spoke at length about a wide range of subjects —life, work, and, in so far as we could, the Wheelon case.
This individual asked me about my own job: what it was like to arrive at a place as a relative stranger, trying to piece together puzzles like this. I told him, quite confidently, that reporters, in the field (wherever that field may be), have to rely on the edifying role of truth (or the sum of all people’s version of truth, perhaps) to make headway on the most complex issues.
I told them that the persistent lie is one of the most stubborn things to control —that the decision to remain party to a fallacious account is what usually undoes a source or a subject.
As the conversation continued, this individual shared seemingly new information —information that surprised me in its freshness. In the moment, I felt something akin to joy, having turned the latest page in a book of untold length.
But after leaving the restaurant that evening, I sat in my car with the heat cranked, trying hard to stay warm in the bitter cold fall evening. The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about the latest round of admissions. I wrote a few notes, adding additional question marks, and then headed back to my hotel. I was struggling with what might be the reporter’s true responsibility: to find consistency amid myriad allegations; to find some acceptable “truth” in the maelstrom of suggestion. (*I did not include this information in the final piece.)
For those who read the piece, and more importantly the comments, it is obvious that a single feature (even at 2,500 words) cannot capture the extent of an issue.
You’ll also notice that, in Wheelon’s case, no verdict —judicial, that is— has been cast. For the few who took issue with some particulars of the piece, I appreciate your interest, attention and candor. For the Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who have eschewed the practice of soring, who have decided to raise their animals with the respect and care outlined by the statues of this country and by the moral compass of any responsible animal owner, I apologize for lumping you in with anyone alleged to be practicing otherwise. But for the vast majority of readers —either casual or committed— I do ask for patience.
Today, Congress will hear arguments on the Whitfield Amendment (noted in the piece) in Washington, D.C. For the first time in more than 40 years, individuals on both sides of the aisle will take the stand to describe, in detail, their stance on stricter regulation within the industry. I feel confident stating that petty banter has stood in for reasoned debate for too long, and I can only hope that this hearing provides a venue for sound arguments based on facts —and facts alone.
For a writer who knew little about this world before taking it on last August, I have learned much from my experiences in Tennessee and even more from those who stand against the mistreatment of animals. Regardless of one’s view on the Wheelon case, however, we should be able to agree on one thing: We owe it to those 19 horses to figure out what really happened in Maryville.