Horse dies after controversial training method

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SAN DIEGO – San Diego’s horse community is up in arms after the death of a horse in the care of a trainer known for using controversial training methods that some consider a form of torture.

Trainer Mark Arballo was allegedly training a Gunner horse with superb quality bloodlines called Bella Gonnabe Gifted at the River Valley Ranch near the San Diego-Mexico border last weekend when the horse died.

horseThe horse was tied up with a shank bit and apparently panicked, breaking the straps, according to Bethany Wallace, another trainer at the ranch.

“(Arballo) started wailing on it, beating on something,” said Wallace. “He was trying to pull and hit something with a long strap.”

“I saw Bella lying prostrate on the ground, tacked up and bloody faced,” she said. “Her nose was mutilated and bleeding out of her nostrils and one ear. She was unable to move – just groaning.”

Bella belonged to ranch owner Martha Torkington, who was not at the property when the incident happened.

Torkington said the training technique, known as “biting up,” is common and comes down to differences of philosophy: a heavy hand versus a gentler touch.  Yet, Torkington stressed, a trainer should never leave the horse alone during the process.

“If they get tripped up, they have no way of catching themselves,” said Torkington. “All the balance is in their head. They fall over and potentially hit their heads.”

Critics of the technique say the practice is just plain animal cruelty.  Horse trainer Christopher Martinez described the horse training technique as a “brutal…torture type device.”

Martinez used to work for Torkington, but he left the ranch claiming he witnessed abusive behavior towards the animals and the death of another horse last year under similar circumstances.

“They are so bound — that curb strap is puncturing through the horses chin,” said Martinez. “Every horse [at River Valley] has scars from it.”

San Diego County Animal Services is investigating the horse deaths.


  • Reisa Stone

    This is heartwrenching. It bears no semblance to training. This is outright cruelty.

    Bitting up is a cruel practice. The news piece made it seem as if it was the type of bit that made it so. It is not. The curb added an extra measure of pain, but was not the primary cause of this poor mare's agony and death. Her neck was wrenched around to its greatest extension, her head tied firmly to the saddle for hours.

    Bitting up is based upon exhausting an animal through pain, until the lazy "trainer" doesn't have to deal with any spark of spirit, any behavior that defines a living, feeling creature. It's the same as if you tied children's arms above their heads for hours, in order to teach them a school subject.

    If they survive, child or animal, you end up with a frightened, exhausted, sore automaton with a broken spirit.

    I'm especially stunned and heartbroken, as I just visited Bella's brother at a reining show last week. He, too, has the distinctive gentle Gunner face with the wide blaze. This world class line of horses is known for being sweet and tractable. Even as a breeding stallion, Bella's brother stands calmly in the aisle at busy competitions, patiently waiting for guidance.

  • Chris

    Ginny, spend 5 good minutes imagining YOURSELF in the EXACT same situation as this horse. They feel fear, panic, pain, and have no way of escape. See the world through their EYES. They have to endure whatever we humans do to them. You would panic in the same situation. And, if it went on and on and on every day, you might be insane or might feel better off dead. It's not too theatrical. It's just something you don't see. The horses can't talk. They can only endure. If a horse dies from training there is something terribly, terribly wrong. The ranch owner and all that belong to it should be brought up on charges or better yet, forced to endure training methods of their own sort.

  • Debbie Lynch

    There are effective gentle ways to get a horse to accept the bit, like put molasses on it! They have worked for me. Horses DONT LEARN ANYTHING WHEN THEY ARE FRIGHTENED AND IN PAIN! This man should NEVER be near a horse again. And this so called "training method" should be banned along with all of those who insist on praciticing it. This is a from a horsewoman of of over 50 years.

  • Donna

    "Animal control will investigate" and you can bet your sweet ass they won't do a damned thing. The owner of that horse should be banned from having horses, especially after saying it s a common training technique, in other words, it's ok! WTF?! I would be beyond livid had this been my horse and to think all of her horses have visible physical scars from her approving that type of training method. She should have that bit shoved up her stupid ass and the trainer should be fired on site. Monsters roam this planet and it makes me sick!!!

  • brenda christensen

    People should let animals be animals. Live them out of the movies, The Circus and the hands of filthy money hungry humans.

  • Gadfly

    Bitting up a horse, done properly, (supervised, snaffle bit only, in motion on a longe line, just for a few minutes at a stretch) is a classic and humane way to get a horse used to bit pressure, but this was NOT done properly and, like so many things, idiots think if a little is good, then a lot is better.

  • Nina

    This story is poorly written and gives me no information. Where is the inverted pyramid? What kind of lead is that!? You lead with the community is up in arms. What are they doing? Are all of this trainers clients leaving him? Are people suing him?I want to know the mares age, how long has she been in the care of this trainer. This technique is controversial to who? One person? You need someone outside of this incident but who is within the industry. Where is the statement from the National Reining Horse Association? Where is the Statement from the American Paint Horse Association? Will he be punished within those organizations?

    The quotes were confusing and unclear. To the layman Gunner means nothing.It's more words but you could write recently deceased 5 million dollar sire Colonels Smoking gun which makes more of an impact. Or a quote from the owner. Many people love Gunner's because they're easy going and have flashy sliding stops. What was the purpose of her owning it. Was it her personal Non-pro horse? A horse she wanted a trainer to campaign? Or an investment as a future broodmare? What future did this owner plan? And how does it maker her feel that it's now vanished because of this man she let handle her horse?

    Write better articles! This one sucked.

  • smeegal

    This is bullshit..! The horse died because it was BEATEN to death!! NOT because of the technique..and looks like a mexican did it…they are CRUEL and barbaric when it comes to training methods..same as how they slaughter horses down there (USA horses I might add) by cutting off their legs while they are still alive going down a conveyor belt…bleeding out….this "man" smh..did not have respect at all for this horse or probably the owner either…he needs to go BACK where he came from….the hole under the rock!!!!

  • guest

    The method itself it not cruel. I can make a easy case to say that a heavy handed rider, one who`s timing and understanding that the release is more important then the pull is significantly more cruel then this method. That`s not to say that this method can`t be done in a cruel way. it can and too often is. when a horse is bit up they give to pressure and when the do they reward themselves thus becoming lighter and releasing the pressure that`s applied. I believe to use this method properly you must be including forward motion. right? the goal is to teach the horse to drive up into the bit not just give to the bit. being able to teach your horse how to carry itself without the weight of a rider helps it become stronger in carrying proper body position and in most cases is much less stressful on the horse then having some ignorant rider yanking and pulling, not using there leg properly to drive the horse, or someone just hanging on the horses mouth.
    There is both an ethical and unethical way to use this technique. the knowledge of how to use it and the character of the person using it is essential to making the use of it ethical. the problem is those two things seldom come together.

  • delia

    that asshole should be tied up the same way if you cant handle these beautiful creatures you shouldn't be around them!!!

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  • Mandy

    NEVER EVER tie a horse up by his bridle. NEVER. And never "wail" on them, either. Cruelty and meanness are commonplace in HUMANS. Kindness and a gentle hand go a long long way with a horse. I have been training horses over 50 years.

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