What We Learned From Watching An Equine Cruelty Case In Court

Too many owners believe horses will, somehow, take care of themselves.

Watching a court case up close can give you a different perspective on animal cruelty, and this week my wife, Heather Bailey, had the opportunity to do just that: She sat in court for the preliminary hearing of an equine animal cruelty case.

And she came away with the strong belief that the sad truth is that some people shouldn’t be allowed to own horses in the first place. Because they don’t understand the care and responsibility that horse care involves.

We’ve worked with a local rescue organization for several years, and they had sent out a request to have warm bodies in the courtroom to help show the commitment of the local populace to animal-welfare issues. So Heather went to show support for the organization’s work.

The facts of the case as they pertained to the condition of the horse were horrifying and not really in question. The horse was severely emaciated when it was seized by the county Animal Control, and he had a severe and grotesque injury to his penis that required immediate and life-saving medical treatment. Two of the people testifying for the prosecution included a veterinarian who had examined the horse after it had been seized and the Animal Control officer first on the scene. The defense attorney did not cross-examine either of them, as the pictures and their testimony were conclusive. No one could argue this horse was in horrifying condition.

But from there things got interesting and complicated, from a legal standpoint. While no one seemed to disagree the horse had been terribly neglected, the central question was who, exactly, owned and was responsible for the care and welfare of the horse.

There was a broken family (with disagreement between husband and wife about who was to care for the horse), a mysterious third party who may or may not have been feeding the horse, and a combination of restraining orders and shifting addresses.

As a horseman, this was difficult to listen to. To see the state of this animal, in clear and terrible suffering, made you angry. So angry that your first thought is that SOMEBODY needs to pay for what happened to this poor, sweet creature. Somebody must be guilty of something, for it to be in such a state. You want to throw the book at somebody. If you look at the pictures too long, it’s easy to want the book to be thrown at ANYBODY, just so someone gets punished for the suffering of this horse.

But, that isn’t right and more importantly, it isn’t the law. And what became painfully, depressingly clear as Heather sat there was that what mainly led to this horse’s state was ignorance and apathy. This was a horse acquired by people with no horse experience or knowledge, traded for an air compressor, and stuck in a random paddock where none of the people involved lived. The daughter enjoyed him for a time, but when the family broke apart, no one was thinking about the horse. The mother and daughter became, basically, homeless; the husband was in and out of jail due to restraining-order violations; and pretty soon, in their world, this horse didn’t exist.

Perhaps they thought there would be enough grass for him in the small paddock where they’d left him with two other horses. Perhaps they believed the owners of the other horses, who were well fed and cared for, would step in and care for him. (They didn’t.) But honestly, it seems most likely that they all just forgot about him, right up until the moment that Animal Control came calling.

Ultimately, it was most likely the uncertainty about exactly who was responsible for this horse led to the legal outcome—the judge declined to send it forward as a felony and knocked it down to a misdemeanor charge. Prosecutors will now seek probation, restitution for the rescue that rehabbed the horse, and a prohibition from owning animals for a period of time.

I’m happy to report that the horse did survive and is thriving in a new adoptive home.

It’s easy to feel a bit angry about this case, but after hearing the testimony, it makes a certain sense. While the horseman in me is angry that this whole family essentially forgot their horse and let him starve and be injured, as a human being it’s hard not to see that this poor horse was the least of their problems. Homeless children and restraining orders sort of put things in a different perspective.

Of course they should have done something. But that something should have started with never having the horse in the first place, and that ship had long since sailed.

Ironically, the executive director of the rescue group said afterward that the fact that the horse lived worked against them in pursuing the case as a felony. It’s apparently easier to get a felony trial and conviction with a dead animal— grim statistic that’s a bit hard to wrap your mind around.

The legal process itself is fascinating, but not exactly like an episode of “Law and Order” in terms of speed of procedure. We strongly encourage anyone with an interest in welfare issues to got watch a cruelty trial if they get a chance. It was an experience we’re still digesting some days later and that will stay with us for some time.

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