Neglect, abuse of horses on rise in bad economy

JACKSON — The white foal had wandered away from his mother in August when rescuers found him and 17 other horses starving in Leake County.

“Baby horses never leave their herd, but he was off by himself trying to die,” said Sheila Horton of Have A Heart Horse Rescue in Carroll County.

When Horton and Stephanie Billingsley of Twelve Oaks Farm in Madison County approached the owner with the local sheriff’s office, the owner gave up the horses.

“No charges were pressed because they did the right thing in surrendering them,” said Billingsley, who is caring for two of the six pregnant mares from the herd.

There’s a growing problem of horse abuse and neglect cases throughout the state, rivaling abandonment and abuse of cats and dogs, experts say. The economy, ignorance and apathy are swirling together to create “the perfect storm” for horse neglect, said Lydia Sattler, director for the Mississippi chapter of the Humane Society of the U.S.

“Every sheriff’s department I’ve met with has this problem,” said Sattler, who operates out of Kiln. “There are more horses out there in poor shape than we can get to. Almost every day someone tells me of a horse starving in a field somewhere. We’re not only seeing a lot of intentional cruelty but a lot of neglect.”

When Horton started in 2007, her largest rescue involved four horses, but larger neglect cases followed when she took in five in 2008 and five in 2009, “and again I thought that was a lot at one time,” she said.

The horses removed in August is by far the largest case she said she has been involved in.

Deputy Ken Sullivan, Rankin County’s animal control officer, said people buy horses and don’t know how to care or feed them. “The economy right now has a lot to do with it,” he said.

“People don’t realize how expensive horses are,” Billingsley said.

If one horse costs about $1,000 a year, then the larger a herd grows the more expensive it becomes, she said. Horses need pasture land, shelter, feed beyond the grass in the field, vet care, shoes and other expenses that add up, she said.

Sometimes, owners don’t realize that their problems will worsen if they don’t geld their stallions or allow their stallions to run continuously with the mares in the herd, Billingsley said.

“It’s not unusual to have people pull up here with horses in their trailers,” said Debra Boswell of the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in Jackson. “Some are in bad shape, but it’s better they brought them here than leave them in the pasture until they die.”

MARL has about 15 horses in its system.

“The ones we see are mostly victims of neglect. They’re starving,” Boswell said.

A stronger state law dealing with animal cruelty would help reduce the number of cases, Sattler said.

Sullivan is working to strengthen animal cruelty and seizure laws, so law enforcement officials can remove animals abused or neglected.

“The worst thing now is they can be charged with neglect with a maximum fine of $100,” Sullivan said.

Billingsley oversees Mississippihorses.org, an online community of volunteers who assist horse rescue organizations and law enforcement in rehabilitating and finding homes for abused and abandoned horses.

“People continue to breed horses, and they can’t feed the ones they have,” Billingsley said. “There are too many horses and not enough people to take them in.”

In the Leake County case, Horton brought the white foal, now named Lone Cloud, and five other horses to Have A Heart. A little more then 60 days later, all 18 horses are healthy. Horton’s five are almost ready to be sent to foster homes.

“He (the foal) is doing great now. He thinks he owns the place,” Horton said.

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Lucy Weber/The Clarion-Leger