Former Willcox horse trainer Neal Collison was ready to go to jail.
He had made arrangements to have his horses and affairs looked after while he was gone. Looking at up to six months--more likely 30 days--he was prepared to pay $7,500 in restitution to the owner of a horse he had worked with that was later euthanized from injuries that occurred during training.
Collison, 65, was indicted Nov. 15, 2002, in Cochise County Superior Court with 12 counts of animal abuse, involving four Arabian horses. Eight of those charges were felonies. But in the 10 months that followed, Collison's lawyer and the state of Arizona worked out the plea agreement.
All of the felony counts were thrown out when Collison agreed to plead no contest to one misdemeanor charge. He said he agreed to the plea because he wanted to put the whole thing behind him, even though he knew he had not abused any horse.
Though Collison was prepared to do jail time, on Oct. 24, 2003, Judge Tom Collins sentenced him to the minimum penalty--one year on probation, as well as the $7,500 in restitution--and told the horse trainer how impressed he was with his résumé and the dozens of statements from people who gave him glowing professional and personal character references.
Collison has trained more than 2,000 horses worldwide. Many of the horses he has trained have gone on to win numerous show awards.
Collins did not have such kind words for the owner of the horses who brought about these charges, Pam Long, an Arabian horse breeder who owned 25 horses at the time that she sent four of them to Collison for training. Judge Collins reportedly admonished Long for trying to blame Collison for unmanageable horses that she herself raised.
Nevertheless, the damage to Collison had been done.
THE ABUSE CHARGES stemmed from reports made in July 2002 by a livestock inspector to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, stating that a Benson veterinarian had contacted the office in regards to an animal cruelty situation. According to the report, the veterinarian told the inspector "that the horses had been in training with Neal Collison since the first part of June, and it was very apparent they had been severely mistreated."
But had they? And if so, by whom?
Collison realized he had some difficult horses to train even before he got them home to his training facility north of Willcox. Loading them into his trailer at Long's ranch in Dragoon, he said, was a nightmare. "They were like wild beasts."
On the interstate, he said, he had to pull over because the horses were smashing against the trailer so violently he was afraid it was going to roll over.
When he unloaded the horses in Willcox, they had cuts and scrapes on their legs from the trip. And the horses were terrified, especially one 4-year-old sorrel gelding named Whisper.
"This horse kept smashing into fences, kicking the steel posts, kicking the ground repeatedly. It would hit the fence so hard at wide-open speeds that it would fall back on its haunches, then fall over backwards on its back. This horse was scared to death."
He said all four Arabians "were wilder than anything I've ever seen in my life, even wilder than the wild horses of the deserts of Nevada." The four horses had been sent to him for training because Long wanted to sell them and they had had little or no handling in the past, according to Collison. In Long's own statement to the court she wrote: "I told him that I wanted to sell them and didn't want them to come home."
Mike Robertson, of Robertson Horse Sales of Benson, says situations like this are not uncommon. He has seen a tremendous change in the kind of people buying horses today. People used to buy horses because they needed them, and they learned to work closely with their animals, getting to know them well. Today, he sees a lot of people buying horses strictly for pleasure or as a financial investment, and sometimes just to look at.
Robertson says he sees a lot of horses that haven't been handled and, worse yet, many that have been mishandled.
"That is the biggest problem there is in the horse business," he said. "For every horse that's been handled wrong, they're scared; they've got bad habits. It sometimes takes years to take out those bad habits that may have taken someone 10 minutes to get started."
Robertson. 67, has been in the horse business all his life. He's been in Benson since 1984, when Robertson Horse Sales opened. Before that, he ran a sales barn in Montana for 45 years.
"I've never seen it this bad," he says. "In this auction business, we sell horse after horse to well-meaning people who take it home and call us back two weeks later telling us, 'This thing is an idiot. I can't get along with it,' and almost every time, it boils down to the person not knowing what they're doing."
"So many people do not realize they're dealing with a living, breathing, thinking, feeling animal. And when something the size of a horse is scared and out of control, (it's) either going to hurt (itself) or the person handling (it)," he said.
Were the horses Long brought to Collison mishandled? No one really knows for sure, except Long, who did not return a call requesting an interview. And of the three veterinarians who saw the injured Whisper, all declined to comment about the case. The livestock inspector who filed the abuse reports also did not return phone calls.
Linda Tunks, of Willcox, has been friend to both Collison and Long. She introduced the two after Long told her she was considering having her worst-mannered horses killed because she could no longer afford to keep all the horses she had.
Tunks, once a veterinary technician, said she helped Long to vaccinate and de-worm her horses, and that they were known for being difficult to handle. "Everyone who has ever had anything to do with those horses knows how hard her horses are to deal with," she said.
"One of the horses that Pam took up to Neal's (the sorrel gelding Whisper), we were vaccinating and de-worming one day, and she made me stay out of the pasture until she had him in the panel corral that she had in the pasture. She had to put grain in the feeder in order for him to go into the pen. She told me not to come in at all until the gate was shut, because he would run right over the top of me. She had to squeeze this horse, once caught, between two panels so he could not move, for us to even get near him. She told me not to touch him because he would probably try to come right over the top of the panels. I remember feeling very sorry for that horse."
Sarah Thompson, 22, of Tucson, worked for Long four years ago, when Whisper was a colt, helping to care for her horses. Though she insists Long's horses are well-cared for, Thompson admits there were horses there she worried about.
"Some of them have no human contact other than to be looked at, fed and vetted," she said.
Thompson said she knows Long would never knowingly hurt her animals. "Pam loves her horses, but for some reason is not able to devote to them the time and training necessary to make all of them tractable animals."
She says she remembers Whisper only vaguely as a shy, timid foal that wouldn't approach her.
Perry Hicks, the Bisbee lawyer who represented Collison, said there is such an increase of court cases involving animals in Arizona that the State Bar Association is considering creating an entire animal law section.
"There are seven states already that have created animal law sections," he said. "This is a burgeoning area of law."