Necropsy results find a reining horse euthanized after a training incident in 2013 suffered a basilar skull fracture. Bella Gunnabe Gifted was found down after being “bitted up” in a shank bit for more than an hour.
We obtained documents that were sealed until recently, due to the on-going criminal proceedings against Bella’s former trainer Mark Arballo. He was found guilty of felony animal abuse by a California judge.
A veterinarian that reviewed Bella’s case for authorities notes young horses are “particularly prone to head injury” as they are more likely to resist head restraint.
Court documents state the 5-year-old Quarter Horse mare was found on the ground, non-responsive. Bella had dried blood on her nose from a laceration and dried blood in her ear. Her breathing was labored and her eyes moved rapidly back and forth.
Arballo told the treating veterinarian he gave Bella 10cc of Banamine. Dr. Larry Catts, DVM recommended the mare be euthanized due to her grave condition. Bella’s owner, Martha Torkington, authorized euthanasia upon her arrival on the scene.
Initial findings state the horse had a few superficial and deep lacerations of the skin to the head and along the orbit. In the nose, there were small amounts of clotted blood in the nares and [in] the ear canal. Distal trachea and bronchi contained small amounts of blood-tinged foam.
Examination of the head reveals a comminuted fracture along the suture line of the basisphenoid bone and occipital bones and extending to the temporal bone and acoustic meatus with hemorrhage in the cranial cavity, cranial cervical vertebral column, and surrounding soft tissues. Hemorrhages were also present on the meninges of the cranial cervical spinal cord, and there was focal compression of the medulla oblongata at the fracture site.
According to the necropsy performed by the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, there was no evidence of degenerative, infectious or inflammatory changes in the brain or cervical spinal cord.
Veterinarian and Forensic Pathologist Dr. Alexandra Silber, DVM, analyzed the necropsy report saying basilar skull fractures occur frequently when horses fall over backward when rearing. She attributes the injury to the weight of the horse’s head combined with the length of the horse’s neck, which causes the head to strike the ground with tremendous force. She says the prognosis for horses with a basilar skull fracture is very poor.
Dr. Silber says blunt force trauma can fracture the frontal bone or other outer bones of the skull. However, the force from a person beating, kicking, or striking a horse is not enough to fracture the basilar region of the skull she says.
In November 2013, animal control requested charges be brought against Arballo and his reining trainer girlfriend, Patrice Hohl.
The agency also recommended that Torkington, the mare’s owner, and her husband, George Kiss, should be charged under California Penal Code 597a, as accessories. Kiss runs The River Valley Ranch which is now also known as the San Diego Equestrian Center.
Court documents state, “Torkington and Kiss knew or should have known that Arballo’s severe training techniques could result in the harm and/or death of an animal.”
Arballo was the only defendant prosecuted by the San Diego County District Attorney’s office.
“We do not discuss our charging decisions, except to say that we can only issue charges when we believe we can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt,” the prosecutor’s spokeswoman Tanya Sierra told us.