Bound for a slaughterhouse less than a year ago, Rescued Performance Machine — RPM for short — rose to stardom earlier this month at the Horse World Expo.
RPM and trainer Jeffrey R. Michael won the expo’s second annual Rescued to Stardom Challenge, a two-day competition at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.
It was quite the comeback story for a horse who had been destined to end up on a dinner plate.
“He was actually a stallion that was bailed from a kill pen,” said Washington, D.C., veterinarian Dr. Dondi Dahlgaard. She owns eight rescue horses and looks forward to riding as his training progresses.
RPM was in a “kill pen” of horses that were going to be crowded into a livestock trailer and shipped to another country, Dahlgaard said. Slaughtering horses for human consumption is illegal in the U.S., but is permitted in Canada, Mexico and other countries, she said.
The horse was saved last spring by Omega Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation of Airville, Pa., she said. RPM was gelded, quarantined for a time to ensure he was free of disease, and later brought to the farm northeast of Hagerstown where Michael trains horses.
Beyond having been saved from slaughter, Dahlgaard said they do not know much about RPM’s history, or even its breed. Her guess is he’s part quarter horse with some Andalusian mixed in. RPM was rough-looking when he was rescued, his mane and tail a tangled mess of dreadlocks.
The 38-year-old Michael, the owner and trainer of Split Creek Equine Solutions, has a lifetime of experience working with horses, but the rules of the challenge gave him just 90 days to transform RPM, a nearly wild animal, into a horse capable of performing before a few thousand people.
“I started with a horse I had to get some kind of control, of,” Michael said of the 8-year-old dark bay gelding. “He’d never been ridden and he had limited contact with humans.”
“I’ve ridden my whole life. … I had a pony when I was growing up and had to learn to train it,” Michael said. He began training horses in earnest in his early 20s.
“I bought a horse that had a lot of problems and got really curious about how to fix it,” he said. Michael later attended professional clinics where he saw trainers like Chris Cox of Sulphur Springs, Texas, do in hours what it had taken him 60 days to accomplish with a horse.
“I’ve come up with a program where I’ve mixed a lot of things I learned from these guys and from horses on my own,” Michael said. For a dozen years Michael has been training horses at the Honeybourne Stables of Dr. George and Carol Engstrom, working with up to five animals at a given time.
At first a somewhat aggressive animal, Michael found RPM to have a good personality and to be a fast learner.
Michael and RPM began working together in late November in a round pen. It started with Michael using his body language to direct the horse to go in one direction and then another. Eventually the horse and trainer begin “joining up,” where the horse looks to him for direction, Michael said.
Gradually, the trainer gets the horse accustomed to a halter and being guided by a rope, Dahlgaard said as she watched Michael work with “Mack,” another rescue horse. A big step is getting the horse to accept a bridle and saddle, she said.
“He bucked and bucked and bucked and threw himself around,” but did not rear up or fall, Dahlgaard said of RPM’s first experience with a saddle.
The Rescued to Stardom Challenge was only in its second year when RPM and Michael went to Harrisburg for the two-day competition against nine other teams. However, Michael won the inaugural competition last year with another horse, Freedom, who now lives in Pennsylvania.
The challenge pairs a regional trainer with a regional rescue organization, in this case the region stretches from New York to West Virginia.
“I’ve roped in Oklahoma in the national finals” and at other large venues, Michael said, but the equine arena at the farm show complex presents its own challenges.
“It’s very loud and very bright,” Michael said. Despite the distractions of the arena and crowd, RPM made the most of his second chance in life.
Horse and trainer go through through a variety of exercises to demonstrate to the judges and audience how well they work together, including “in hand work” where the trainer and horse demonstrate how well they maneuver and “box judging” where judges get a closer assessment of the animals.
Pistol, a 6-year-old Texas heeler, took part in the competition, showing RPM could remain calm and focused even with a dog weaving under his belly and around his legs.
There is also a routine done to music, Michael said.
“This time we did something a little different, bringing in a truck with a flatbed trailer,” said Michael.
He and RPM rode around the arena with the American flag and then onto the flatbed, Michael said. The truck then pulled the trailer with horse, rider and flag around the arena, he said.
RPM showed the other day that he is a gracious winner, taking a deep bow with a little encouragement from Michael.
Dahlgaard said she understands that eating horse flesh is accepted in some cultures, but also notes that horses have a more refined “flight or fight” instinct than other livestock. Shipping horses are jammed into trailers without adequate food or water for a long journey is extremely stressful on the animals, who have to be heavily drugged before slaughter.
RPM likely won’t achieve the fame of Roy Rogers’ Trigger or Gene Autry’s Champion, but he has shown that in the hands of trainers like Michael, a rescue horse can shine.
“Jeff is very good at setting horses up for success,” Dahlgaard said.
Michael expects he’ll be back in the saddle again next year with a new rescue horse at the Horse World Expo.
“My goal is to get the message about rescue horses out a little stronger. … The reason we’re there is to show rescue horses can be trained to do great things,” Michael said of the participating trainers, horses and rescue organizations. “We’re putting on a show (for the audience) but at the same time I hope they’re inspired by what we’re doing.”