Smooth Maximus was having a bad day.
The 4-year-old, prize-winning stallion “was having an absolute fit” after being tied to a wall at a cutting horse event in Whitesboro. The roughly 1,000-pound horse was kicking, charging other horses and biting at people. A girl tried to calm him, but Smooth Maximus went on the attack.
“I couldn’t watch any longer as I didn’t want to see this poor girl get her head bashed in,” said Sarah Sanderson, a photographer at the event.
Smooth Maximus’ owner, Tommy Manion of Aubrey, decided to shoot the horse in the hip several times with a Daisy BB pistol, the sting of the BBs bringing the berserk horse under control.
Now Manion is feeling the sting.
He has been investigated for animal cruelty, suspended from the prestigious National Cutting Horse Association and fined $15,000. The veteran horseman contends he used a common method to discipline horses — and his attorney says the NCHA would rather not talk about it.
Manion filed a lawsuit in Tarrant County district court earlier this month against the Fort Worth-based NCHA seeking to clear his name and prevent the punishment from being imposed. He is seeking up to $1 million in damages because he can’t participate at NCHA events, restricting his ability to market his horses and breeding operations.
Manion, an award-winning horseman with 56 years of experience, declined to be interviewed and referred questions to his attorneys.
“The association is intentionally destroying the good name and reputation of one of its most prominent members to hide a dirty little secret — that shooting a horse in the hip with a BB gun is a known and often used method for training and disciplining horses when they misbehave ...” said his attorney, John Cayce.
“The NCHA is obviously willing to throw one of its own members under the bus unjustly, and in violation of its own rules, to avoid even the slightest criticism by animal rights activists,” Cayce said.
The NCHA did not return phone calls seeking comment, and attorney Albon Head declined to comment on the pending litigation.
In an August statement regarding another abuse case, the organization stated that it has a long-established zero tolerance policy: “The NCHA wants to make clear that it is strongly committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of the horse. The NCHA has in the past, and will continue in the future, to strictly enforce this policy at all NCHA approved or produced shows.”
Robert Rust, a 74-year-old trainer who lives near Stephenville, doesn’t consider what Manion did abuse. A six-time cutting horse champion, he said BB guns have been used through the years as a way to help trainers establish dominance. He said shooting horses with a BB gun will not hurt the animal.
“I just don’t feel like what he did was abusive,” Rust said. “Tommy had a horse that was dangerous and he was trying to get it under control without really hurting it.”
Other cutting horse enthusiasts said shooting a horse with a BB gun is a form of abuse and denied that it is a widely accepted practice in the industry, in which highly trained stallions and mares can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and rich and famous owners compete.
David McDavid, who made his fortune roping in car deals and has been a cutting horse owner and competitor for 25 years, said if the allegations against Manion are true, they are “very unsettling.” He also doubts the behavior is widespread.
“Everybody I know in the cutting horse business would find that appalling, to shoot a horse with a BB gun. Where in the hell did that come from? Who would do that?” McDavid said. “Who would say that horse is acting bad and I’ll shoot him and he’ll start acting good?”
Zero tolerance policy
Cutting horse enthusiasts say theirs is the only competition where the horse is required to think.
Horses with colorful names like Peptos Scootin Man, C Rio Cat and Stevie Rey Von are trained to cut, or separate, a cow from the herd. During competitions, which are judged on how well a horse anticipates and reacts to a single cow’s movements, the sleek cutting horses are elite athletes.
Competition can be fierce. The NCHA sponsors more than 1,300 events a year. Some 130,000 entrants can win in excess of $36 million in prize money, including at big events at Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth.
Besides lucrative purses, cutting horses can earn even more through breeding. Manion brags on his ranch’s website that a cutting sire that lived at his ranch, Smart Little Lena, not only won $743,000 during his career but that his offspring have reined in another $39 million.
All of this means that the cutting horse industry is big business. Over the years, it has attracted wealthy participants such as Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who moved to a ranch outside of Fort Worth to be in horse country, and celebrity owners like country western singer Tanya Tucker, pro golfer Tom Watson and Secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Parker County is dotted with cutting horse ranches.
Some trainers say no quick gimmicks or shortcuts can beat a red saddle blanket and a lot of hard work with a horse. Others will resort to techniques passed down over generations. A smack to the horse’s head to get its attention. Shock collars that give small electrical jolts to enforce a behavior.
“There are a lot of nasty little tricks people have used over the years to train horses,” said Richard E. Dennis, a Louisiana horse trainer and animal behaviorist who doesn’t think there is widespread abuse in the industry. But he wouldn’t be surprised, either. “I’ve seen it myself. Some trainers are freaking brutal.”
As the cutting horse industry grew more sophisticated, the NCHA developed a zero tolerance policy that states any inhumane treatment or abuse is not to be tolerated. Abuse includes excessive jerking, whipping or hitting a horse’s head. Inhumane is anything causing the horse undue discomfort or distress. There also are extensive rules about doping animals.
Adopting those stringent guidelines was necessary to protect the sport, trainers and others said.
“You’ve got PETA and others wanting to shut these things down and it puts fuel to the fire” when a horse is mistreated, said Dennis, who writes a column “Rick’s Corner” for a website, All About Cutting, where he’s written about abuse. “It is better to regulate it (yourself) or the federal government will do it for you.”
‘Super aggressive maniac’
Smooth Maximus clearly didn’t like being tied up to the railing after performing on July 15 at a cutting horse event in Whitesboro, a small town outside of Gainesville.
Manion said the stallion had performed well and he had gone off to work with two other horses competing in the show, court records show. Then there was an announcement over the public address system that Smooth Maximus was being unruly and had to be moved.
The stallion was squealing and kicking the fence, horses and trailers parked nearby. Smooth Maximus was rearing up, pawing at the air and tried to “savagely bite” one of Manion’s employees.
A man tried to help a girl calm the horse, but Smooth Maximus “turned into a super aggressive maniac” and tried to dive over the top of the wall to bite him, per a statement from Sanderson, the photographer, included in the court records.
Manion got a BB gun from his truck. According to a witness statement, Manion hid behind a horse trailer and for five to 10 minutes, when the horse would squeal, he would step out and fire. He shot the horse three to four times, court records contend.
Manion’s actions had the desired effect. But he was approached by others at the event and told that his behavior was unacceptable, prompting a confrontation, according to a statement given by Tracie Anderson, an amateur NCHA member.
A veterinarian examined Smooth Maximus and no injury was found, according to Maura Davies, an SPCA spokeswoman. Though there was not enough evidence to pursue charges, it doesn’t mean that the agency approves of Manion’s actions..
“The SPCA does not condone shooting animals with a BB gun,” Davies said. “There was not enough evidence to pursue charges, but there were other ways to help calm a horse or to avoid the situation, entirely.”
A complaint was filed with the NCHA and a committee determined Manion violated its zero tolerance policy. As a result, the NCHA suspended him for two years to be followed by a five-year probation. He was also fined $15,000. An appeals committee upheld that punishment earlier this month.
While suspended, Manion also is banned from American Quarter Horse Association events. The National Reining Horse Association has taken a similar action.
PETA applauded the NCHA’s actions.
“A cruel cutting horse trainer was, in our view, properly suspended and fined for repeatedly shooting a horse with a BB gun — something even his own lawyers admitted that he did to ‘punish’ the animal. The man may have thick skin, but the horse doesn’t and indisputably suffered from the pain of the shots,” according to a statement from PETA Vice President Colleen O’Brien.
Manion’s attorneys argue that the NCHA is too harsh, stating that there is no evidence that the horse was harmed or traumatized or otherwise abused. While not conceding he did anything wrong, Manion also argues his punishment exceeds the $1,000 fine and six months of probation or suspension for a first-time offender.
“The NCHA has a well-known reputation for arbitrarily and capriciously enforcing its rules,” Cayce said. “But to disparage a member by suspending and fining him in a ‘kangaroo court’ proceeding for potentially saving a human life by bringing a violent and dangerous stallion under control with a method that caused absolutely no harm or trauma to the horse is beyond the pale.”
Cayce said “reasonable people” may disagree on whether or not shooting a horse with a BB pistol is an appropriate method of discipline. He said the evidence will show that within the industry it is a “well-known secret” that this is done.
Rust said the NCHA is going overboard to appease groups like PETA.
“The association is bending over backward to get along with these groups, and I don’t think you can unless you want to turn every horse out to run free,” Rust said. “Knowing what I know now, no one is going to do it again in public if they are going to have to fight this.”
Lindy Burch, a former association president, NCHA Futurity Open winner and NCHA Open World winner who has been involved with cutting horses for 45 years, disagrees.
“It absolutely isn’t the case. We don’t shoot horses for any reason,” Burch said. “That wouldn’t be a form of discipline any more than shooting your kid with a BB gun. ... You’d think I’d heard of it if it was a common practice.”