Banned but not banished

jpatton1@herald-leader.comAugust 31, 2008 

  • Soring trial testimony

LANCASTER — When Larry Martin needed to sell his 3-year-old Tennessee walking horse colt, he thought he'd turned to the right man to help.

Gary Oliver was a local trainer with an award-winning reputation, decades in the walking horse business, and a big name in the Kentucky Walking Horse Association.

But the trip to the White Pines, Tenn., auction in February 2004 resulted in a nightmare.

Not only did Martin's horse, Daisy's Ebony Generator, not sell, but he came back lame. Within weeks, the colt was dead, put out of his misery after Martin discovered him in Oliver's barn with the horse's left front foot almost rotted off.

Martin sued Oliver, and in June 2007, a Garrard County jury found that Oliver had failed to properly treat and care for Martin's horse. They awarded Martin $3,500 in damages, as well as trial costs.

Beyond compensating Martin for the value of the horse, Oliver's trial provides a glimpse into the world of Tennessee walking horse training. It is a world of horse owners who dedicate much time, energy and money working with a breed known for its elegant gait. Owners frequently travel to horse shows to compete for honors and prize money, and sales of promising walking horses can run to six figures.

But it also is a world struggling with soring.

Soring is the banned practice of deliberately injuring a walking horse's front feet — through either chemical or mechanical means — to get it to pick those feet up higher in an exaggerated style known as "the Big Lick."

Oliver denies soring Martin's horse.

"I felt real bad this horse got hurt while we were down there," Oliver testified. "I treated this man's horse just like I would treat my own horse."

Although representatives of the industry say abusive practices are largely a thing of the past, statements that came out at his trial indicate otherwise.

In his deposition and, eventually, on the stand, Oliver admitted to practices that are banned by the federal Horse Protection Act.

He testified that he regularly put kerosene and motor oil, mixed with sulfur and alum, on Martin's horse and all of his own horses' feet. All are illegal, considered methods of soring.

"That's what any normal trainer would have done if they're going to put chains on a horse," Oliver testified. Chains are routinely wrapped around walking horses' front feet, especially if they are shod with thick padded shoes, to coax horses into high-stepping.

Dr. John Poe, a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinary medical officer who inspected walking horse shows, testified that the lesion on Martin's horse was consistent with chemical soring.

"In my opinion, this is a classic example of a soring process that went wrong," Poe told the jury.

A bad trip

According to testimony at Oliver's trial, this is what led up to the death of Martin's horse:

On the morning in 2004 that they left Garrard County for the auction in Tennessee, Oliver was hunting for his "mixture." Eventually, Martin said, Oliver gave up, saying, "I've got some full-strength here that I paid $60 an ounce for."

When they got to White Pines, as Oliver and his son Tyler readied three horses brought for sale, Gary Oliver squirted something clear from a syringe on Martin's horse.

"He was shaking his foot, like he was in a lot of pain," Martin testified. "When they called his number, he couldn't hardly walk on his left front foot at all."

The horse drew a bid of only $900, and Martin did not agree to the sale.

Afterward, he said, he asked Oliver, "What did you put on my horse?" He said Oliver wouldn't tell him.

The ride back to Lancaster was apparently a quiet one. Martin said he left his horse with Oliver, who said he could fix the colt up with some salve.

Two weeks later, after repeated visits and inquiries, Martin finally saw the horse's unwrapped foot.

"When Gary took the wraps off, I was sick. The horse's foot had busted open," Martin told the Garrard County jury. "He was just standing there, grunting, moaning, shaking his foot."

Martin went home, got a trailer, and took the horse to a vet in Danville. The vet, Dr. Warren Nash, became angry when he saw the horse.

"He said, 'I've never seen a worse place on a horse than that,'" Martin said, in emotional testimony on the witness stand. "He said 'If you'd brought it tomorrow, his foot would have been hanging.'"

Martin said Nash told him it looked as if acid had been put on the hoof.

Nash took four photographs of the horse's leg, then euthanized him.

In a signed statement describing the incident, Nash wrote, "This horse had massive tissue damage to the pastern and ankle area. The necrosis was so extensive that it had eaten through the tendons to the point so where the animal was unable to control normal movement. There was no way of saving this horse."

Nash did not realize that he'd seen the same horse a few weeks before, when he had signed a travel certificate for another client, Gary Oliver.

At the trial, Oliver and another vet, Dr. Alan Dorton of Versailles, testified that the bad leg could have been the result of an accident, such as the horse clipping its front foot with its hind foot. An infection could have resulted, Dorton said, that took time to manifest.

Nash, who had not seen an injury when he examined the horse before the sale, said on the stand that an infection was "a possibility." A caustic substance, he said, also was a possibility.

Nash said he took the pictures because the injury was so unusual and severe.

"Only thing keeping this horse's foot on," he told the jury, pointing to the pictures, "is there's ligaments you don't see inside the ankle here. Just in a matter of time this whole thing would just come off. This in here was obliterated, rotted out ... gone."

'Classic example'

The practice of soring is banned under the 1970 Horse Protection Act, federal legislation designed to specifically protect Tennessee walking horses.

The law prohibits any substance on the extremities above the hoof while being shown, exhibited or offered for sale except glycerin, petrolatum or mineral oil.

Poe, whose experience with USDA includes the infamous 2006 Celebration in Tennessee that failed to crown a grand champion after seven of 10 finalists were disqualified for Horse Protection Act violations, called the Oliver case "a classic example of why they passed the law."

Oliver originally denied having a syringe or putting anything on the horse's legs. But Martin's attorney, David Marshall, pointed out that testimony contradicted Oliver's own deposition, taken in 2004.

In his deposition, Oliver said he used kerosene and "a mixture of motor oil and sulfur alum" underneath the chains on the horse's feet as a lubricant.

On the stand, he said that is standard, what he does to all his horses, what any trainer would do.

When contacted recently, he would not comment on that testimony.

Asked whether he was sorry about what happened to Martin's horse, he said, "Why, sure I am. ... He got hurt."

But Oliver said he did nothing wrong, and he contends that because the jury did not award punitive damages, they thought so, too.

"The jury did not find that I did anything to that horse ... intentionally, or deliberately," Oliver said. "Obviously, the jury didn't think there was anything wrong because they didn't award any punitive damages. ... The case is what is; it's public record."

No charges

No criminal charges have been brought against Oliver, although retired Kentucky State Police Detective Gary Lane said he investigated complaints about Oliver and determined that, because key actions took place in Tennessee, federal law rather than Kentucky statute applied. The evidence was turned over to federal authorities.

"The Kentucky State Police is going to enforce the Horse Protection Act in the commonwealth. The evidence indicated further investigation was needed in White Pines, Tenn.," said Lane, who has investigated many kinds of cases involving horses.

USDA spokeswoman Jessica Milteer said the agency, which enforces the Horse Protection Act, has been asked to look into the case. "We have passed (the trial evidence) to our general counsel to see if there is a reason for us to take action," she said.

Nash said last week he had not been contacted by investigators.

Resignation, suspension

After the trial ended last year, Oliver remained involved in the walking horse industry. Until recently, he was considered a qualified inspector and judge.

Oliver said he no longer trains, owns or shows horses. However, Oliver Stables in Lancaster was listed among the top trainers at Kentucky Walking Horse Association shows last year. Oliver said it is a family business.

He also is vice president of the KWHA, which administers the money received from a taxpayer-financed state program for the breed. In the last two years, according to the state, the Kentucky Walking Horse Breeders' Incentive Fund has gotten more than $700,000 to pay out to KWHA members.

The Kentucky Walking Horse Association announced on Aug. 14 that it had accepted Oliver's resignation as a member of the KWHA's Horse Industry Organization, the official wing that provides judges and inspectors. That resignation does not affect his office as vice president of the association.

"The committee met earlier in the week to discuss allegations made during a civil case involving Mr. Oliver," according to the HIO's statement. "Although the court found no evidence of gross negligence on the part of Mr. Oliver, he resigned his appointment on July 25."

KWHA president Earl Rogers Jr. said the resignation from the HIO board means Oliver is no longer an inspector or a judge, although he is still listed as a judge on the group's Web site.

Oliver would not comment on the HIO's action and said he had not seen the statement.

On Wednesday, the national Walking Horse Trainers Association announced that it had suspended Oliver's license "indefinitely."

According to the association's statement, the suspension was by "the unanimous vote of the WHTA board of directors and officers following receipt of information that Mr. Oliver's abuse and neglect of a Tennessee Walking Horse in his care resulted in the horse being euthanized."

Chuck Cheek, WHTA attorney, said the vote was taken in a special board meeting on July 29 after they were contacted by state and court officials and were unable to reach Oliver to discuss the case.

The action by the trainers' group, a professional association, will be observed by the National Horse Show Commission, which puts on the Celebration, the country's largest walking horse event, which just wrapped up in Tennessee. Cheek said that no horses were listed in Oliver's name for the Celebration.

He said it is his understanding that other walking horse groups also will observe the suspension.

However, he said, Oliver remains a member of the Walking Horse Trainers Association.

"I think it's much more than symbolic," Cheek said of the suspension. "It's not how it impacts Mr. Oliver. It's how it promotes the protection of the horse."

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