Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OPINION - BY MARY BETH SWEET­LAND

The ev­i­dence from our re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion at ThorS­port Farm doc­u­mented sick­en­ing prac­tices.

The “Big Lick” Ten­nessee walk­ing horse in­dus­try seems to have em­braced a new strat­egy when con­fronted with hard ev­i­dence of an­i­mal abuse. Duke Thor­son de­nied any wrong­do­ing in a press state­ment, and the Cel­e­bra­tion re­warded ThorS­port Farm train­ers with rib­bons and prizes.

Four years ago, an un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States doc­u­mented trainer Jackie McCon­nell and his as­so­ci­ates ap­ply­ing caus­tic chem­i­cals to horses’ legs and il­le­gally trans­port­ing them to shows.

The “Big Lick” crowd im­me­di­ately threw him un­der the bus, call­ing him a bad ap­ple and eject­ing him from its hall of fame. The case re­sulted in the sec­ond-ever fed­eral felony pros­e­cu­tion un­der the 45-yearold Horse Pro­tec­tion Act. It also sparked the dis­cus­sion in Congress about the need to for­tify the fed­eral law.

The ev­i­dence from our re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion at ThorS­port Farm doc­u­mented the same type of sick­en­ing prac­tices — slather­ing caus­tic chem­i­cals on horses’ legs so own­ers can col­lect rib­bons.

While those in­volved in the ThorS­port op­er­a­tion have been ex­posed as more ap­ples in a thor­oughly rot­ten bar­rel, the or­ga­niz­ers of the Cel­e­bra­tion gave the op­er­a­tion high hon­ors. ThorS­port head trainer Chad Wil­liams took home the Re­serve World Grand Cham­pion ti­tle with one of the vic­tims from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, He’s Vida Blue.

So what was dif­fer­ent? In­flu­en­tial Duke Thor­son op­er­ates at the high­est lev­els of this cor­rupt in­dus­try, sit­ting on the board of sev­eral Ten­nessee walk­ing horse in­dus­try groups, in­clud­ing the Per­for­mance Show Horse As­so­ci­a­tion and the new Horse­men’s Lead­er­ship Coun­cil launched by the Cel­e­bra­tion.

ThorS­port is lo­cated in Murfrees­boro, which is in a dif­fer­ent county than McCon­nell’s farm. The HSUS turned over all of its ev­i­dence to the Rutherford County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice, but a search war­rant sched­uled for Aug. 24 was nixed at the 11th hour with­out ex­pla­na­tion by some­one in the Rutherford County law en­force­ment chain of com­mand.

The show ring suc­cess of the abusers speaks vol­umes about the in­dus­try’s dis­re­gard for the law and for an­i­mal wel­fare. The fact that author­i­ties in Rutherford County and the 16th Ju­di­cial Dis­trict took no ac­tion to in­ves­ti­gate the sor­ing go­ing on at ThorS­port or bring these an­i­mal abusers to jus­tice speaks vol­umes about the fail­ure to up­hold a law in­tended to pro­tect these in­no­cent equine vic­tims. It un­der­scores the need for the ma­jor re­vamp­ing of the fed­eral law that the Pre­vent All Sor­ing Tac­tics (PAST) Act will pro­vide.

These fail­ures are the very rea­son the Hu­mane So­ci­ety con­ducts un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Trans­for­ma­tional change has oc­curred in so many in­dus­tries be­cause brave in­ves­ti­ga­tors pulled back the cur­tain on prac­tices that would oth­er­wise re­main hid­den from public scru­tiny.

The ev­i­dence from our in­ves­ti­ga­tion of ThorS­port is un­de­ni­able. All of the wrap­ping sam­ples taken di­rectly from the legs of horses at ThorS­port tested pos­i­tive for illegal sub­stances.

Rhonda Thor­son her­self called the stor­age room “the scary room,” an ap­pro­pri­ate de­scrip­tion be­cause its shelves were stocked with WD-40, GoJo and home­made con­coc­tions used to sore the horses.

The in­gre­di­ents in these mix­tures in­cluded a highly flammable com­po­nent of tur­pen­tine and sul­fur used to make fer­til­iz­ers and gun­pow­der. No one would want these sub­stances smeared on their skin. Sadly, it’s a “tra­di­tion” in the “Big Lick” com­mu­nity to do this to horses.

Mary Beth Sweet­land is se­nior di­rec­tor of re­search and in­ves­ti­ga­tions for The Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States.


A Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States in­ves­ti­ga­tion ear­lier this year fo­cused on ThorS­port Farm in Murfrees­boro.

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