A lot of common sense is needed when training horses.– Tim McQuay, NRHA Hall of Famer
Arballo Reining Horses
John Pighini sent two horses to Arballo Reining Horses’ North Carolina location in September 2010 for training. Hollywood Bar was his daughter’s barrel racing horse, and although new to reining, Pighini says he quickly became disenchanted with Arballo. “The sides of the horses’ mouths were raw and he was aggressive in the way he treated the animals”.
On October 2, 2010, Pighini received a call from Arballo stating Hollywood injured his leg while he was turned out in the round pen, but that it didn’t look too bad.
Assistant trainer Lindsay tells us she was instructed by Arballo, and his girlfriend, Patrice (Patti) Hohl, to lie about how the horse was injured. “They told me to say he was turned out in the round pen. I don’t understand why, but that’s what they told me to do”.
The vet examined the sorrel gelding the next morning and determined the horse was in “serious danger”. Hollywood’s left front pastern was pulverized into 37 pieces. The quarter horse with the big blaze was humanely euthanized after all options were exhausted at NC State Veterinary Health Complex.
Pighini speaks with disgust dripping from his voice. “Had I known what I know today, we wouldn’t have taken them to him [Arballo].”
Martha Torkington’s Reining Horse
The recent death of Martha Torkington’s reining horse, Bella Gunnabe Gifted, after one of Arballo’s training sessions has spurred a criminal investigation in California. Dan DeSousa, Deputy Director for the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services says interviews are still being conducted and the investigation is on-going. He recently told us the process could take “weeks or months”.
Arballo is accused of leaving the mare “tied around” in a curb bit for an extended period of time in a round pen. He reportedly “taught two lessons and rode another horse” while she was left.
Tying a horse around involves the process of tying a horse’s head to the saddle. It is also called “bitting up” by some.
From afar, dressage trainer Bethany Wallace saw Arballo enter the pen. She realized the mare was down when she saw him “beat her” to try to get her up. Wallace found the blue-eyed mare lying on the ground, still tacked, and bleeding from her nose and ear. The leather rein she was tied around with had broken.
Animal services and a veterinarian were called, but Bella was euthanized about two hours after she was discovered incapacitated.
Trainer Wallace maintains her many complaints about Arballo fell on deaf ears.
Torkington, and her husband, George Kiss, own River Valley Ranch in San Diego where Arballo and Hohl were based until last month. “I had a meeting with the farm’s owners a month before Bella’s death and they told me they were handling it, but they had to keep horses on the ranch and there were still shows still to go to [sic]”.
River Valley Ranch
The trainers arrived on the West Coast ranch in early 2012. On May 30, a horse died during a lunging session with Hohl, also a reining trainer. According to animal control’s report, a witness saw it “being lunged with its head tied and it reared over”. Initially, Hohl told authorities “the horse just collapsed and died”. Days later she told Officer Mushet “she was lunging the horse before she rode him. He did have a saddle on and he just dropped dead, she said he shook for a little while then died”. The seven-year-old gelding named Shiner was owned by Hohl.
Also documented in the report is the reining trainers’ alleged use of the “patience pole” for 16-24 hours at a time to tie horses. Wallace states, “they would ride a horse until it was bleeding from its mouth and sides, then tie it to the patience pole for 12 hours or so with no water, then leave it tied around for another few hours, then ride again, then back to the patience pole, or back to the round pen to be tied around, all the while the horse has not been offered food or water and would not see it’s stall for days.”
Criminal charges were not filed in Shiner’s death because of the lack of evidence, according to DeSousa. The report states authorities did not have a cooperating witness, and the body was decomposed by the time it was exhumed. The horse was buried immediately after its death and prior to an anonymous call to authorities.
Michael Warren worked for the ranch mucking stalls for three years but left in August 2013. Warren says prior to Shiner’s death he saw things he didn’t think were right and told ranch owner Kiss. After the horse’s death, he started documenting with notes and photos when possible. When he told Kiss and Torkington about the cuts on the horses’ faces, he says he was told not to look at the horses that closely.
Allegations of horse abuse
Warren’s log details a horse named Forrest, and others, left in the working cow pen overnight without food or water. Arballo and Hohl allegedly called the working cow pen the horses’ “Sahara Desert”. If a horse was bad during training it would allegedly be left in the cow pen overnight as a stressor. The process was said to make them easier to work the next day.
Warren recounts one of the most brutal things he witnessed. “Mark was riding Magnum when he got off and tied him around … and punched the horse in the face. He left the arena and came back 10 minutes later, walked up, and punched the horse again in the face. Then he got on another horse and watched his dog chase the tied horse”. Wallace describes a similar occurrence with a horse named Two Faced Gunner that went on for about 30 minutes.
Warren says the owners of the ranch were trying to “keep up appearances” so they were always making excuses and trying to hide what was really going on with Arballo and Hohl from the clients. “I think they are all responsible for what happened to Bella”.
Warren left River Valley Ranch weeks prior to the mare’s death. “I felt like since I took my concerns about the abuse to George and Martha, I did my part. Then I sent the photos to animal control”. The photos show not only wounds on the horses, allegedly caused by Arballo and Hohl, but also equipment including a curb strap with screws and a bicycle chain bit.
After the authorities showed Kiss and Torkington the photos, Warren says it became a witch hunt. “I was told they were going to find out who took the pictures and they were going to go after them”. Warren quit shortly after. “They were going to fire me or make my life miserable”.
Torkington and Kiss have come under scrutiny by some for their alleged inaction. Torkington spoke with us on the record, but at the advice of her attorney sent the following later that day. “You are not to publish, infer, write or use in any public forum our conversation”.
Torkington has published public statements on Facebook including “…I did not condone the practice of bitting up a horse in a shanked bit; in fact, Mark was told not to bit up Bella at all. I am devastated; I am in shock and having a difficult time absorbing why Mark would ignore a direct request…”
Bitting up horses
Since the mare’s tragic end, passionate discussions have ensued about bitting up horses. Is it an abusive method or training technique?
Debbie Rocha of Debbie Rocha Horsemanship in Rancho Santa Fe has spent her career starting colts. She says although common, it isn’t “a practice she uses at all or encourages”. She knows many do use it, but not with a curb bit. She stresses the importance of using a gentle bit.
Conundrum Creek Ranch’s Carl Castner in Descanso does use the technique to teach horses to move off of pressure. “I never leave the horse alone, the horse is in a snaffle, and I only do it for a few minutes on each side”. He uses bitting up prior to getting on the horse and does similar exercises under tack with his young horses. “It isn’t meant to hurt or scare them; they have to have a release through the process”. A curb bit, like the one used on Bella prior to her death, offers no release, according to Castner, because it has no moving pieces.
Two-time World Equestrian Games Reining Team Gold medalist and Individual Silver medalist Tim McQuay says, “We teach them to give starting with the halter, it is a technique used carefully”. A trendsetter in reining, McQuay of Texas is known for putting his horses first. That philosophy has served him well with more than $2.5 million in career earnings. “A lot of common sense is needed when training horses”.
He and his wife, Colleen, also owned the $5 million sire Colonels Smoking Gun (Gunner) until the stallion’s death earlier this year. Bella was sired by Gunner and earned over $8,000 through 2012, according to Quarter Horse News.
Regarding the mare’s fate, McQuay says, “It makes me sick. It is a tough deal and I am surprised”.
Although it was more than a dozen years ago, Arballo worked for McQuay for about five years. During Arballo’s employment, McQuay says he didn’t have problems with him, although he admits he runs a strict operation.
Nadine Galbraith, DVM, rented her North Carolina farm to Arballo prior to his employment in California. She says his customers seemed to like him. He was supposed to ride her young horses, but she says he didn’t train consistently and she didn’t see a great technique. “He almost never really came to work and smelled of alcohol.”
One thing he allegedly did show her was “how to make a curb strap with screws to create pain under the jaw so they would give.” Galbraith hired another trainer.
Kristen Woods worked for Arballo in 2003 for only two months because she says, “I didn’t like what he did to the horses”. She describes horses with their “eyes bugging out,” and coming back from training sessions bleeding. “I was not surprised at all to hear about that horse. I’ve seen how he treats his horses”.
More recently, someone was watching Arballo at reining competitions. DeSousa confirms animal control was called out to two NRHA Reining Shows at Willow Glen over the summer regarding his treatment of his horses. DeSousa was unable to release the reports or additional information upon our request. The cases are being combined with the report regarding Bella’s death.
The American Quarter Horse Association and National Reining Horse Association are aware of the current criminal investigation and are in contact with authorities. Anyone convicted will be issued suspensions, according to AQHA’s senior director of animal welfare and breed integrity Ward Stutz.
Also in touch with authorities is the insurance company that insured Bella, says DeSousa. It is just another detail adding to the already complicated matter as they work to investigate if a crime was committed and by whom.
Wallace is no longer running her equestrian business out of the ranch, but she says she hopes justice is served, “I am so very, very thankful that the truth is finally out there for all to see”.
We contacted Arballo, but he did not want to comment for this article. Stay with us as we continue to bring you the latest from this investigation.