"The worst symptom was seen in the animal’s eyes. You could tell they were in great pain. The eyes were dull instead of glossy. The mental state of the animals was obviously impaired,” said one equine expert.
As the aftershocks of Larry Wheelon’s sensational arrest in Maryville rippled through the Tennessee Walking Horse industry on Friday, federal and state officials were dismayed that the scofflaw horse trainer had allegedly put additional caustic substances on 19 horses in his care, this after enduring a federal search warrant just one week earlier and boastfully denying any evidence was found.
Wheelon, a 68-year-old trainer who has been suspended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at least 15 times since 1993, was charged with one count of aggravated animal cruelty in Blount County on Thursday and, later in the day, 19 of 27 horses were confiscated by state animal control officers and taken to several undisclosed locations.
Eight horses remain in his barn near Maryville.
All of the horses that were confiscated were said to have exhibited visible signs of soring, where irritants are used to “steward” the noble animals to lift their front legs in an unnatural gait called the “Big Lick.” Some of the horses had painful globs of hardened epoxy under their front hooves, which is akin to walking with a big rock in one’s shoe, and others had wrappings on their legs where the burning chemicals would “cook.”
“The worst symptom was seen in the animal’s eyes. You could tell they were in great pain. The eyes were dull instead of glossy. The mental state of the animals was obviously impaired,” said one equine expert, a fact that was soon proven when one horse literally ran over a veteran handler in a tragic barn accident Thursday afternoon. The woman was released from UT Medical Center on Friday.
It was at first feared the injured handler’s leg was broken but, instead, there was an 11-inch laceration that doctors said was two inches deep from her shin to her lower calf. The handler’s nose was broken and there were several other lacerations on her face. “She was beaten up pretty badly. The animal literally ran over her. She had handled the same horse the week before when veterinarians inspected the horses and took swabs but this time the horse just reacted to the pain and trauma.”
The horse was quickly calmed and sedated before being transported by employees of the Humane Society of the United States and Horse Haven, a rescue operation near Knoxville. Veterinarians and assistants worked into the night Friday removing what is believed to be a mixture of kerosene and cinnamon from the animals. Officials said mustard oil may have also been used but are awaiting lab results from the swabs, which usually takes between two and three weeks.