Soring Charges Against Trainer Wheelon Dismissed

Aggravated animal cruelty charges against a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer accused of violating the Horse Protection Act (HPA) by soring horses were dropped last week, but the case could still be far from over.

Soring is the deliberate injury to a horse's feet and legs to achieve an exaggerated high-stepping gait. On the federal level, the HPA forbids soring; the practice is also unlawful under Tennessee animal cruelty statutes.

Earlier this year, a visitor to Wheelon Stables complained about the condition of the horses there. On April 18, acting on a warrant, investigators from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with Blount County Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and Blount County Sheriff's Department personnel, examined the barn and the horses inside. Authorities determined that all of the examined animals were apparently sore; the allegedly sore horses were removed to an undisclosed location for rehabilitative treatment.

Law enforcement authorities subsequently arrested Wheelon and charged him with felony animal cruelty. He pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

Gino Bachman, president and cruelty investigator for the Blount County SPCA said that on Aug. 16, the felony charges against Wheelon were dropped after Blount County General Sessions Court Judge Robert L. Headrick ruled that USDA veterinary medical officer Bart Sutherland, DVM—who tested and palpated horses connected to the case—accidentally heard testimony while sitting in the courtroom for 30 minutes during the trial.

“Sutherland was barred from testifying according to the sequester rule, but he (Sutherland) was not aware of that.” Bachman said.

Prosecutors are investigating several other rules which would allow testimony similar to Sutherland's; under Tennessee law, someone else might be able to testify or an informed citizen could testify, Bachman said.

“So it could be far from over,” Bachman said.

Meanwhile, Wheelon's attorney Robert White said that prosecutors failed to prove their case, resulting in the judge's ruling. He added that the case could be reopened.

“But that's up to the prosecutor,” White said.

Tesesa Bippen, president of Friends of Sound Horses, said her agency was disappointed, but is encouraged that the outcome was not yet determined.

“It is our understanding that the final status is not yet determined, and the case can still go to the Grand Jury,” Bippen said.

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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