The direct messages on social media piled up quickly. Then came threatening voicemails, fake negative reviews on the internet, and harassment of customers and family members.

The threats were personal — some wishing death.

Erin Isom and Alden Giacopuzzi, who co-own Alderin Sporthorses at Peninsula Riding Club, in Rolling Hills Estates, say they are the victims of cyber-bullying, sparked by Facebook posts from at least two horse rescue groups last month. It all started after Isom took two horses and a pony to an auction in Mira Loma.

Isom said she was looking for the animals to have a new loving home. They had either outgrown their usefulness or, following injuries, were not performing well at their stables, where they train young riders and others to learn how to jump horses competitively, she said.

But the rescue groups have accused the pair of “dumping” the horses to be sold for meat in dog food.

Stephanie Haney, who’s been a horse trainer and jumper for 20 years and runs Hansen Dam Horse Park in Lake View Terrace, posted about the co-owners on Facebook after the initial news about the auction blew up on social media. She said in an interview last week that she has no regrets. Rather than taking the horses to auction, Haney said, the pair should have found a home for the horses where they could live out their lives. Even euthanizing them would have been a better option, she said.

“If you’re a horse trainer willing to dump a horse at an auction, you have no care for your horse,” Haney said. “None at all. Our job is to protect the animal. They went to the lowest level to get rid of the horses.”

Isom and Giacopuzzi, however, said last week nothing could be further from the truth.

“We’re in the horse business, so we obviously love horses,” Giacopuzzi said during an interview at the stables Friday, Jan. 10. “Why would we ever want them to go to slaughter?”

A lawyer hired by the women has issued a cease-and-desist letter to the administrator of the Facebook page Polo Pony Rescue, and they are considering a lawsuit. For now, though, the women say they just want to rebuild their reputations, ones they have worked their entire lives to build as responsible horse trainers.

Bennet Kelley, the attorney representing Isom and Giacopuzzi, said the harassment the women have faced puts into perspective the frequent mob mentality and consequences of online bullying, where users have the ability to destroy a business — and sometimes, especially in the case of younger people, lives — overnight from the comforts of a keyboard. It’s a situation, Kelley said, that’s all too common these days.

“We’re at this kind of interesting moment on the web,” said Kelley, who specializes in representing people who allege they are victims of cyber-bullying. “Here’s an example of a local business (people) who’s spent substantial resources. They are providing a service to the community and doing everything society says they should do and in a matter of hours a flash mob on the internet calls them horse killers.”

As a result of the negative rumors, the women said, clients have withdrawn from their business, telling the owners they are worried that if they do business with the pair they might be targeted also. Kelley said the behavior by those who threatened the women or encouraged it could be considered defamation and incitement to harass under legal definitions.

‘Kill buyers’

The whole episode started when Isom and an assistant showed up at Mike’s Livestock Auction, in Mira Loma, one Saturday last month. Mike Murphy, who in December celebrated 50 years of running the auction, said recently that a lot has changed in the horse auction business during his long career.

In the past, he said, many horses were sold for either dog food or human consumption. But for more than 20 years now, selling horses for slaughter in California has been illegal and Murphy said he takes precautions to make sure his buyers follow the law.

But Cathleen Trope, who runs Polo Pony Rescue and posted about Isom on Facebook to her nearly 8,000 followers, argued it’s a well known fact that horses at Murphy’s auction end up at a slaughterhouse.

“It is a terribly inhumane thing to do to horses who have worked for you and helped you make money on riding lessons,” Trope told the Daily Breeze in a message last week. “The real story here is how California horses continue to go to slaughter by the truckload 22 years after the legislature made that illegal, and there is no enforcement.”

Murphy contended that’s just not true. The only horse slaughterhouses these days exist in Mexico. There is a buyer for that slaughterhouse at a feedlot in Texas, near the Mexican border, he said. But, he added, those horses are typically only sold for about 30 cents per pound or $300 for a 1,000 pound horse. Isom’s horses, by comparison, would have fetched a whole lot more, he said.

“If we suspect you of buying them for anything other than riding or a companion we will not allow you to buy them,” Murphy said in an interview Friday. “We will not register you if you have a history of horse abuse. We won’t sell them to you.”

Blowing up

Isom said she had not even left the auction before her phone “blew up” with Facebook and Instagram messages calling her all sorts of names. Someone at the auction had apparently alerted the rescue groups and they put the word out quickly.

Isom showed the Daily Breeze some of the messages and played some of the voicemails she received.

“I’m reading and shaking and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Isom said. “They were contacting students and kids in the riding school. They went after our whole business from the ground up, contacting anybody they could. I got a lady cursing at me (over the phone) and a guy said they were going to find me. Another said they hoped a horse kicked me in the head.”

At that point, Isom said, she removed the two horses and pony from the auction and, soon after, found a separate rescue group that would take them for free.

But not before the damage was done. Isom said she had trouble eating and sleeping for nearly a week.

“This was a really traumatic experience,” she said.

The practice, she would soon learn from her daughter, is called “cancelling.” That’s where a group of people share negative reviews about a business on Google, Yelp and other internet forums to the point where a business is potentially ruined.

Haney, meanwhile, doubled down on her vitriol toward Isom and Giacopuzzi in a Friday interview.

“They are scum of the Earth,” Haney said. “The auction is a cruel place to be. The rule is you find a home for it or pay for it yourself.”

Out of roughly 100 horses up for bid that night, Haney said, Isom’s horses stood out because they came from professional trainers. Many of the horses at auction come from poor families that can’t afford them anymore, she said. She also argued that Isom was not being honest about the horses’ capabilities — thinking they were in worse shape than she let on.

Isom said she was transparent about what the horses could and could not do and was only looking for them to have a good home.

“They are highly desirable in a way because they are well bred and are good looking,” Isom said. “I just thought these horses should be re-purposed.”

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