For the past couple of days, the reining industry has been abuzz with allegations of horse abuse at a ranch in Southern California. A 5-year-old mare is dead and a trainer is being accused of causing her death. Local animal control officers were called and, as I write this, an investigation is underway.
I don’t know if the trainer in question is guilty of horse abuse or not. A necropsy is being done and, when the animal control investigation is concluded, the final report should shed some light on a situation that is surrounded by rumors and heresay.
What I do know is that this animal control investigation was not the first involving that trainer’s barn. Last year, a similar report was filed when another horse died in a similar fashion. When word of the 2012 investigation got out, many were quick to criticize the fact that nothing was done to prevent this trainer from killing another horse.
There is no doubt, the deaths of two finished reiners is extremely sad. What I find even more sad is the reason nothing came of last year’s incident – the witnesses disappeared. Without witnesses willing to testify, the case was closed.
Twice in my life I have seen horse abuse first hand. The first time was in college, when the equestrian team’s coach brought in a hunter-type mare. She blamed the mare’s emaciated condition on the fact that she was a Thoroughbred. She began using the mare for riding lessons that lasted for several hours and usually resulted in her chasing the mare and hitting her with a whip to get her to trot over a small jump with a rider. I was one of several bystanders who decided we needed to call animal control. An officer came out, took our statements and examined the mare, then gave the owner a strong lecture on equine upkeep and advised her to start feeding the mare properly. The last time I saw the mare, she had gained weight and was starting to look like a healthy horse.
The second time I had to deal with horse abuse was with one of my own horses. When I first moved to Texas, I sent a young mare to a trainer who came highly recommended. “Breezy” spent a few months there with no problems at all, until the day I showed up to bring her home. From head to toe, my kind and gentle mare was cut and swollen. The corners of her mouth were raw, and her bottom lip was so swollen she couldn’t close her mouth or eat for four days. One hind leg was swollen from stifle to hoof. She had hair missing on her head, over her poll and in between her legs. She had, the trainer simply said, fought the bit when he bitted her up.
Now, I’m not telling you this story to implicate that trainer. He actually died a few years later after getting kicked in the chest by a stallion in what seems like some weird kind of karma. I’m telling you this story because in my first dealings with horse abuse, I did the right thing. I saw a horse getting mistreated and took action to stop it. This second time, I did not. When faced with an abuse that had already happened, I did nothing more than load my mare up and take her home. I failed my mare twice that day – once by not keeping her safe in the first place, and again by not seeing justice done and filing a report or complaint against her abuser.
I wish I could go back and change my decision not to speak up that day. Because every time we remain silent about abuse, we send a message to the world that it’s OK. When a trainer takes things a little too far and gets away with it, that “too far” becomes tomorrow’s normal.
Unfortunately, too many people fear retaliation if they speak up. I know this because they tell me when they write and call and email. They fear their horses won’t get judged fairly in the ring and won’t get trained properly at home. They fear their fellow horsemen will ostracize them for turning in one of their own.
Could all of that happen? Sure, it could. But what would also happen is we would send a loud and clear message to the Western performance industry that we will not tolerate horse abuse at any cost.
I leave you with the words of Albert Einstein, who once said, ““The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Think about it.