A label should not save you

Summer in Australia includes the Christmas season, and I was finishing up work with several clients’ horses.

That time of year saw owners pulling into the driveway with trucks or cars towing trailers to bring their horses home for a break from work, while my husband and I had a respite from the seven-day a week job.

One of my projects was actually wrapping up. It wasn’t my decision, but the owner’s guardian decided the aging Arab gelding had had enough time with the trainer. 

We had first seen this overblown, edgy Arab at his home paddock. The owner, a 15-year-old girl with mild intellectual disability had aspirations to jump him at pony club, but her attempts to train him by leading him over trot poles ended in tears. The horse had knocked her down repeatedly, she had been injured, and she was frightened. 

Her mother lived in a trailer on the property, but guardianship for the girl was given to the grandparents who wanted a solution for her horse. After we heard the story and asked some questions, we all walked out to the paddock with the Arab, where several poles were set out on the grass. I knocked one away from the others and led the horse over to it.  It took moments to recognize he was terrified of the prospect of the pole under his body. It was a project.

We came back the next day and collected the horse for them, and as always, encouraged them to come out as often as they could with the girl so they could watch, then become involved in the process. It was no use for me to put in all the time, and send him home without all interested parties learning together.

They budgeted for a month, and considering the state of the horse, and state of the girl’s confidence, I had little time.  Turns out, I had no time to make a difference. 

This horse was terrified of any pole beneath him. I started with the most slender pole, solid enough it could withstand a knock, but small enough to build confidence. I spent hours with him, doing other groundwork, and would then approach the polework. It was porous process, with the horse’s growing confidence calling the shots.

To put the fear in perspective, there are many inhumane practices out there to cause horses to “enhance their performance”. In showjumping, one practice is called rapping, poling or caning where a horse is battered on the legs as they attempt the jump to cause them to tuck up their legs, so as not to dislodge the pole. Sometimes the pole is lifted to hit the horse as he sails over to encourage a better performance. 

In any event, it can cause trauma and fear in a horse. I can’t say this was the case in this teenaged horse, but there was evidence of trauma, and it involved those poles.

After about two weeks, not one family member had come to see him work. There was always an excuse, and shortly afterwards, the grandfather phoned to say the girl and his wife were heading up to the Gold Coast for their summer holiday, and he needed to take the horse home and then join them. 

The horse found it possible to walk over two poles on the ground by that time. I remember one session where I wept, feeling the futility of trying to help this horse overcome a fear he could easily manage himself in a paddock, just so the girl could jump him. The minute drop of change I could get would be dissolved in this child’s ambitions, and when she was dumped at the first literal hurdle, the horse would move on to another owner, and another; one more casualty of bad training.

When the grandfather pulled in with his trailer, I convinced him to watch the gelding’s progress. He reluctantly agreed, and just as I had the horse in the right spot and feeling capable, I looked up to see the man busy talking on the phone, facing away from the arena.

I turned my attention away, finished the session on the horse’s time, and I was paid, he was loaded up, and I never saw him again.

I bring up this story, because my husband, Ross Jacobs, recently posted a series of photos of an Iowa trainer using a yearling mule, unable to lead itself, to teach very young foal to lead. Ross was working with a client at the barn at the time, and heard a commotion and found this debacle underway.

Whether it was laziness, or a sheer lack of understanding or compassion, the trainer tied the baby to the young mule and expected the pressure exerted on the foal would cause it to learn to give to pressure on a lead rope. Meanwhile, its mother was calling for it outside the arena where the man had these animals tied in a kind of inevitable trainwreck. 

It’s not an uncommon practice to use an experienced mule or horse to train a young or poorly educated horse or foal to lead. I have always taught babies to lead from the ground, by their mother’s side or nearby to give them confidence, and taken the time it takes. Those initial encounters with humans and pressure form the foundation of a horse’s lifetime.

But I have used my own mare to teach balky horses to lead from the saddle. I believe it takes looking after your own horse, as well as the learner. The horses come first, and if done right, it should involve a lot of attention on the part of the trainer to look after the welfare of all animals.

But this was a young mule without confidence or sufficient training, and frightened and under pressure, it began kicking the foal.

The foal was terrified and only found respite when it used the limited rope it was given to tuck itself into a nook where the mule could not follow. My husband reported he saw the man laughing, defiant when he realized the scene was being photographed, and refused any assistance to disentangle the two animals.

The Iowa trainer holding the lead rope of the young mule, at the moment the foal found brief refuge from the mule in a slipway. You can see its face. Photo: Ross Jacobs

In posting these photos on social media to raise attention about this man’s abusive practice, the account of the situation and the man’s name, a deluge of comments followed.

Most people were appalled, but there were several people who wrote to defend the trainer with testimonials about his good character, and how methods were different from trainer.

That’s putting it lightly. From both sides there were heated remarks, and many, critical of the situation, recounted their own experience with this trainer, and told first-hand accounts to other abuses they had witnessed.

Those in defense of the man claimed he was an “amazing person and trainer”.

First of all, whether he is an amazing person is irrelevant and unhelpful. Those who perpetrate abuse toward other people are frequently described by those not victimized as a terrific person, that is is unbelievable such a person could have been capable of domestic violence.

At least as humans, it is a rare case when an exposed case of abuse does not change perceptions. When it comes to animals, it is another matter.

Historical animal cruelty, as has been recounted about this man, can often slide off a reputation without any repercussions. Especially when the person calls him or herself a trainer.

Animal cruelty is systemic in human society. As we have the ability to dominate, we exploit the qualities of animals to suit our needs. In the case of horses, they are beautiful, powerful and their natures make them trainable. 

As as argument based on logic alone, I believe we all have a duty as the most developed species on the planet, to prioritize the welfare of those species unable to make decisions about their own well-being. Farming them to be eaten, cherished, raced or used as beast of burden, we alone have the power and responsibility to ensure their lot is the least affected by our desire.

Of course, in the majority of cases, this cannot and will not ever happen. In the case of that grandfather, his priority was to his granddaughter and her well-being first.  I get that, and it was a foregone conclusion that horse would always come out the loser.

But for the brief time he was in my care, I took the time necessary to help him develop a fragile sense of confidence in a place where he was once flooded in fear. Had the young girl come for help, I would have done the same for her, but she never did.

My own horse Guy standing over some poles which caused such terror in the Arab.

If we call ourselves trainers, we have a duty of care. If a veterinarian takes a pledge to care of animals’ physical well-being, so should a trainer work hard to do the same for the animals’ emotional and psychological well-being. The Iowa trainer operated without empathy, and without care, and in that case, does not deserve a title of trainer, though he could well live up to a title like animal abuser. 

He has earned that title.

I don’t know what ever happened to that Arab, but he was one of so many horses I trained and knew, who would go on to become statistics in our own human greed for success and ambition. It is our way. And it is why, after many years in the industry, I cannot train for the public anymore, because I cannot make it right in my head.