Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fractured Skulls and Broken Hearts

Last week I shared with you my thoughts on tying around, and why I think it is time to leave this 'training method' behind in our evolution as horsemen.  This week, with almost prophetic timing, the reining world was shaken by the unfortunate death of Bella Gunnabe Gifted at the hands of trainer Mark Arballo, who tied the mare's head and left her.  The mare apparently flipped over, fractured her skull, and was found by witnesses with blood gushing out of her nose.  The mare was later put down, but not before witnesses saw Arballo hitting the mare in attempts to get her to rise.  You can read the news report and watch video of the news report here.  The owner of the mare, Martha Torkington, also owns the ranch where the death occurred, River Valley Ranch, and was filmed smiling and calming saying that 'this is a very common training technique.'  San Diego County Animal Services is investigating the death of Bella, but this isn't the first time they have been to the ranch; in 2012, Animal Services investigated the same trainer and facility for having a horse die in the same manner. 

While I will respectfully wait for SDAS to do their job in investigating this incident, and will not make any conjectures as to what Arballo's fate should be, it is clear that Arballo did indeed tie this mare up with a shanked curb, left her alone, and when asked about the mare's death, the owner admitted knowing about Arballo's use of tying around.  I hope that, if found guilty of abuse, Arballo will face more than a slap on the wrist in facing the consequences of this mare's death, but what happens to him is less important to me than what we can learn from this tragedy, and from there, what the future of the industry will be.

My heart is breaking for this poor mare; she was so pretty, and had so much potential.  In the words of her former trainer, she was very sweet and willing.  She wasn't a crazy mare or dangerous.  She deserved better than to die this way.  But my heart is also breaking because of the aftermath of her death.  This week I participated in many discussions about this incident, and was shocked at how many people were quite blase' about the whole thing.  "Everyone does it" and "sh** happens" was expressed many times in forum discussions, often by well-known riders/owners, and one person tried to use the 'stupid animal' defense, saying that since animals have brains the size of walnuts, we should expect things like this to happen.  These attitudes are simply disgusting to me.  How can we, as an industry tolerate this callousness?  How can we be so flippant about a horse's needless and preventable death?  How can we justify the abuse of an animal that we make our living off of?  And in what universe is "everybody does it, so it must be OK" a good reason to do anything?  I think I learned by first grade that that is never an excuse for bad behavior!

The truth is, many people in our industry are stuck; they don't have the tools in their toolbox to train a horse without resorting to short cuts, gimmicks and devices of force and pain.  They don't want to share in Arballo's guilt, so they make excuses for his behavior and pretend he is being targeted by a 'witch hunt,' and 'personal vendettas.'  They are afraid that they will be investigated for similar abuses, so they shun outsiders and try to band together against change.  They don't want those "damn PETA people" to come after reining the way that the Tennessee Walking Horse people have come under fire, so they characterize anyone who advocates for more regulation as crazy, stupid, inept, over-emotional and potentially dangerous.  They just want to close their eyes and ears in hopes that this whole things will just go away.  Even Bella's owner seemed strangely unaffected by her death, and seemed to defend the trainer in the news footage.  This bothers me deeply because I really believe that these attitudes will be the undoing of our industry.

There is a lot at stake for trainers these days.  There is more competition money out there, and owners are vocal in their pursuit of it, so there is a lot of pressure on trainers to win, sometimes at all costs. There are fewer owners with bottomless pockets out there participating, so there is pressure to do well and attract bigger, better owners.  Everything needs to happen fast, whether it is when they are trying to get young horses ready for the Futurities, or when they are getting horses tuned up for aged events. There is a perception that the guy/gal who takes their time in preparing a horse is going to be left behind.  It isn't a surprise that some would resort to short cuts in order to chase the dollars more effectively.  But it is the horse that loses. We also lose, in that we lose our sense of ethics, and we lose the ability to face the public with a clean conscience.  For these reasons, I understand the fear that humane organizations will come after the horse industry - they certainly have grounds to in some cases, and the industry has so far been ineffectual at policing itself.

I want to be clear:  I love equine competitions, of all kinds (except for charro horse tripping, which is deplorable).  I want our competitions to continue, far into the foreseeable future, building on the training traditions that are worthy of continuation, while leaving those that no longer serve us in the past.  In other words, I want us all to EVOLVE.  There are a myriad of techniques used to train show horses that may be common, that may have been used for a long time, that may even be used by big name trainers, but that no longer serve us.  Like it or not, our interactions with horses will forever more be scrutinized under the microscope of youtube, by a more aware and more unified public.  We cannot stick our heads in the sand and go on as if we are somehow above questions from the public, or that the public will leave us alone.  Our training techniques need to become more transparent, and they must be humane when looked at in the bright light of public opinion.  And this doesn't just go for reiners; soring of gaited horses, hyper-flexing dressage horses, hitting jumping horses in the cannon bone so they avoid poles, cutting/injecting western horse's tails, etc., all needs to go.  There isn't a corner of the horse industry that shouldn't be taking stock and weeding out abusive practices.  The time has come to clean house.

If there are trainers that insist on using force and pain to train their animals, we must be willing to speak up and stick our necks out, for the good of the horses directly involved, but also for the industry itself.  And if those people end up facing charges, being banned or are black-listed by the public, so be it.  We cannot afford to defend the indefensible.  Those who abuse horses need to take their lumps, and the rest of us need to up our game.  I don't believe that every trainer of western performance horses uses tying around, but there are plenty of other ways that they might be overdoing it.  Hopefully some are humble enough to say that they are not proud of what they are doing - be it spurring a horse till they are bloody, drugging a horse to mask pain, riding a horse to exhaustion or using equipment that is meant to inflict pain - and vow to stop.  I would have so much more respect for someone who is a big enough person to say,"I see that this isn't the right way, and I am going to do better" than someone who says, "Oh well, they are just stupid animals and sh** happens."

Tying horses' heads is a risky technique that not only puts our horse's at risk, it can make them more sore and resistant, and isn't necessary if a rider is willing to take a few extra minutes in the saddle each day and work on bending the horse. To get a horse really flexible and light, it is imperative that the rider use feel, releasing the pressure the moment the horse gives.  This is how the horse knows it is on the right track.  Tying a horse's head dulls them down and doesn't encourage a partnership between rider and horse; it's purpose is to get horses to submit and give in to the pain.  If the horse is unable to bend using a light handed technique, it probably has pain somewhere in its neck, poll, or shoulders, and should be seen by a vet or massage therapist.  I want newcomers, owners and non-pros to understand these facts so that they can make informed decisions for their horses, choosing trainers that ride based on feel, not force, and speaking up when they see a horse in distress.  Doing so may save a horse from a lot of pain, and may even save one's life.

One last a child, I took lessons from a wonderful dressage instructor who ran a riding school.  Being a small, older lady, her training techniques were not based on force or strength, but rather on taking the time with each horse and rider to build a foundation of skills, filling the rider's toolbox with sound principles, and encouraging partnership.  She was adamant with us kids that we must remember: we are ALWAYS to be responsible for ourselves and our horses while we are riding or handling them.  If something goes wrong, we put the horse in that position and we are the one at fault, not the horse. Never the horse.  Taking responsibility in this way seems to happen less and less in our society today, but I won't lose hope that it will become fashionable again.  For this reason, I am glad that people are talking about this mare's death, examining horse training while doing a gut check that we are doing the right thing by our horses.  We are blessed and fortunate to be able to ride these noble creatures, and we should treat it as the privilege that it is.