Caroline MacGregor Published

Appalachian Trainer Face Off Equine Competition Showcases At Risk Horses

Three women and a brown horse in a horse riding arena
The Appalachian Trainer Face Off competition features horses that have been rescued by West Virginia nonprofit, Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue group. Pictured (from left) are Colby O'Connor with her horse, "Coolio," Hannah Stallard (sitting) and Heart of Phoenix president Tinia Creamer.
Caroline MacGregor/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting

One of the largest equine events to showcase rescue and at-risk horses is taking place in Winfield, West Virginia. 

Sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Appalachian Trainer Face Off competition features horses that have been rescued by nonprofit Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue – either in law enforcement seizures, surrenders, or culled from herds residing on abandoned strip mine properties in West Virginia.    

Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue Group founder and president Tinia Creamer came up with the idea for the event while exploring ways to help vulnerable horses available for adoption. The nonprofit advocates for equines in Appalachia, promoting horse adoption, training, horsemanship and education. 

“It’s become the largest horse event in the state of West Virginia, which we’re particularly proud of because it’s a rescue event,” said Creamer. “So, to elevate adoptable horses and rescue horses to the point that they are the premiere event with the largest number of people attending to see them in the state was a big deal to us.”

Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue Founder and President, Tinia Creamer

Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Face Off features trainers from across the country who work with rescued horses at risk of slaughter and showcases horses of all breeds, ages and backgrounds. Creamer says many of the horses have had limited training or never been handled at all. The event started in 2017 and grew rapidly with trainers coming from all over the US to compete.  

“This year we have trainers from Mississippi, Minnesota; we have judges from Texas, from New York on Long Island, from Georgia,” Creamer said.    

The event even attracted horse judge Pat Roberts, the wife of legendary Californian horse trainer, Monty Roberts, who trained Queen Elizabeth of England’s horses. 

The Face Off begins in May, when the names of participating trainers are drawn at random. Each trainer chooses from a pool of horses and has 100 days to train the animal to compete in three divisions, including the “technical” division. This focuses on basic horse handling, such as haltering and leading the horse, picking up his feet, loading and unloading, saddling, and riding at the walk, trot and canter. 

Laura Lezotte is a competing trainer for this year’s Appalachian Face Off. The first horse she adopted from Heart of Phoenix was back in 2019. 

Horse trainer, Laura Lezotte, with her Tennessee Walker “Casino”

Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“He was two so I had a year of ground work to do before I even got on him and Covid happened and I spent everyday with that horse and fell in love with the whole training process,” Lezotte said.

Lezotte is competing in this year’s event with a three-year-old palomino Tennessee Walking horse named “Casino” who will be available for adoption following the event.

Judges for this year’s competition include horse trainer Carl Bledsoe from Talking Rock, Georgia. He says that while there are technical marks that need to be met in the competition, he looks for the relationship between the horse and handler.   

“The technical part doesn’t mean as much to me unless they have a willing partnership and the horse understands the communication,” Bledsoe said. “So the horse is not pushed too far to where he is apprehensive about anything. I’m looking for that horse that is completely trusting the person that’s handling it.”

Bledsoe has worked with horses for years and said his focus is on classical horsemanship training for both horse and rider with a specialty in training gaited horses.

“What we’re doing today is, if you have just a basic set of skills you can get through this course,” Bledsoe said. “We’ve already seen one horse who was not as confident as some of the rest of them but he got through the course a little better because he was really connected with the girl who was handling him, and he was going on his trust for her rather than his knowledge of doing the particular task.”

Laura Lezotte guides “Casino” through the technical division of the 2023 Appalachian Face Off.

Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Keith Dane is the senior director for the Humane Society’s Equine program which places rescued horses with good homes. He said many of the horses they work to save were turned loose on public land and have been left to fend for themselves. He credits adoption programs offered by groups like Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue with making a difference.

“We believe that every horse is wanted by someone, we just have to find the right owners,” he said. 

Horse trainer Noah Tillman-Young is a featured judge at this year’s competition. He said the horses are only rehomeable by making sure they are safe. 

“Especially with these guys because they come from an uncertain past. A horse that feels safe will do anything for you,” T’Y said. “They have to have a basic understanding of what it means to connect with a person in a willing way, not being forced to do it.”     

Vania Carr with Full Circle Stables, Kentucky showcasing her three-year-old Fox Trotter gelding, “Jameson.”

Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Sonny Garguilo, a judge from New York, is one of the country’s leading equine behavioral experts. He said trust is critical to training a horse.

“I’ve actually seen folks that weren’t even horse people that just adopted a rescue horse and wanted to take care of it, had zero skills, but through building trust and showing leadership to the horse they succeeded,” Garguilo said. “If there is no leadership in a herd, someone steps up and becomes the leader which is where people get into trouble if the horse becomes nervous or aggressive.”  

Garguilo said because horses are considered prey animals, it is their nature to flee before they stand and fight, the opposite of a predator animal like a dog or a pack animal like a coyote.  

“I think if you’re just kind to the horse and you have to show leadership because with that leadership that gives security to the horse,” Garguilo said. “Because that’s all they want, the horse wants to feel secure, they want safety, that’s their number one concern.

“If you’re a good human and a good horse person, you’re going to impose with kindness and try to build that trust. If you’re not, that’s when you run into trouble with horses because even a horse that is docile is going to stand its ground at some point.”

Since Appalachian Trainer Face Off kicked off in 2017 about 250 horses have been adopted and more than a million dollars raised in the form of in-kind services and funding. 

The event runs through Saturday, August 19 at the Winfield Riding Arena in Winfield, West Virginia.