TWIN FALLS, Idaho • Some horses sold for $20. Others went to “canners,” who would take them across the border for meat.
So they held their breath and leaned into each other as if a collective yearning could keep the sweet little Appaloosa mare from an uncertain fate.
As the auctioneer jabbered up the price, Tara Wiggins kept flashing her card. Across the small stadium, the other bidder didn’t take her card down until the end that late Friday night in June.
Sold for $380 to bidder No. 813. Wiggins and Lori Stewart, off-duty spokeswoman for the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office, cheered and hugged. The two could smile again.
The mare — Oreo — had been turned over to the Sheriff’s Office after repeatedly escaping her fence. Wiggins, whose husband is a deputy, said Oreo would join her seven other horses.
“My little guy just fell in love with her,” she said of her son.
It was a rare victory in a battle with no end, no budget and much heartache. With hay at $200 a ton, a lingering recession and little to no market, neglected and malnourished horses are a rising problem across the West, said Connie Blayney, of the Idaho Horse Board.
Twin Falls deputies have seized 12 horses so far this year, stemming from four cases of abuse or neglect. Last year, three horses were seized during two investigations, and in 2011 only two horses were taken during two cases.
Cases of horse neglect aren’t as common in Jerome and Cassia counties, their sheriffs said.
Oreo was in custody for 13 days, and the Sheriff’s Office spent about $90 on her, not including deputy time. Only a small percentage of neglect reports result in seizures, and few seizures result in everyone going home happy.
“In my recollection, that’s the first horse we’ve made money on — ever,” Stewart said.
A Long Process
Seizing an animal is a long process with which many Magic Valley residents are unfamiliar, Lt. Daron Brown said. Each case is unique, as neglect — starvation, abuse, bad living conditions, poor hoof care — takes many shapes.
Repeat offenders are common. But so are invalid reports to deputies.
“People may think they are starving, but in all reality, they are healthy,” Brown said.
One animal control deputy and four range deputies are trained to assess the horse’s condition, its dwelling and its owner’s ability to care for it.
Deputies work with the owner to bring the horse back to health, sometimes recommending a veterinarian check or requiring obvious measures, such as that the horse’s overgrown and curling hooves be trimmed.
“Normally, in two weeks we can see a difference in the animal,” Brown said. “If we need to go another two weeks, we’ll go another two weeks as long as the people are working with us and doing what they should to take care of their animals.”
If deputies must step in and seize a horse, they will seek guidance from a veterinarian or animal health inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Many resources are tapped to transport and care for the confiscated animals until the matter can be resolved. Deputies previously kept horses with the Twin Falls Livestock Commission, but people sometimes turned them loose or stole them back. Now deputies keep the location a secret.
The five deputies work together to check on the horses at least twice a day and feed them according to the vet’s guidance. A vet will euthanize a horse that is emaciated or suffering.
The deputies tally the costs of seizing and keeping a horse, and they put a lien on the animal. At a forfeiture hearing, deputies give a judge the estimated cost of care. The owners, who often face criminal charges, have 72 hours to post the bond.
If they can pay, the deputies keep the horses until the case is settled. The owners may get their horses back, but that often is up to the judge.
“We’ve had people who were convicted and sentenced that they couldn’t own or manage any animals while they were on probation,” he said.
If the owner can’t post the bond, the animals can be sold at auction in hopes of recovering the cost of upkeep. Sometimes the animals, often old and unbroken, bring low bids or none at all. Other times they go to the canners, but deputies don’t concern themselves with knowing the buyer.
“We’d like to hope they go to someone that will take care of them, but if they can’t, fact of the matter is that a canner buys them,” Brown said.
No money is budgeted for horse care in Jerome, Cassia and Twin Falls counties, so money is pulled from other coffers.
“We don’t have the financial means to care for other people’s animals,” Brown said. “That’s their responsibility, not ours.”
Twin Falls police have had only two calls concerning horses — they had jumped their fences — in the past 1½ years, said Ed Gudgell, animal control officer.
Cassia County Sheriff Jay Heward said horse neglect calls aren’t common there either. They last seized a horse about seven years ago. Most calls reporting skinny horses turn out to be horses that are simply older, he said.
In Jerome County, Sheriff Doug McFall said neglect or abuse calls come in about every other month. Volunteers help in rare cases where horses have been seized, he said.
Twin Falls County may have more cases because it’s home to hobby farms and pleasure horses, whereas Jerome has ranches and industries for which healthy horses are needed for work, McFall said.
Horse neglect investigations are tense, Brown said. The excuses are numerous: They aren’t my horses; they aren’t in that bad of shape; I can’t afford it anymore.
“I’m telling you what needs to happen to your own animals, and would you take offense to that? We’ll get a lot of, ‘Yeah, I know, but I just don’t have the money,’ “ he said. “The people know the conditions the animals are in, but they are so attached to them they won’t get rid of them, they won’t sell them or give them to someone who will take care of them.”
While Twin Falls County might be the hotbed for area horse neglect, the problem persists across the West, said Blayney, the long-time Idaho Horse Board appointee.
“I spend the winters in Arizona, and they are having the same problem,” she said. “Especially because there is very little pasture, and hay is expensive down there.”
At $200 a ton, hay alone can cost $1,200 a year — excluding veterinary and farrier bills, tack and other equine needs. Classified listings commonly advertise free or cheap horses seeking a good home, she said.
Compounding the problem are the economy, the low price of horses, the cost of putting them down ($150 to $300) and the demise of the American horse slaughterhouse, she said.
“People just can’t afford to put them down. People turn them out, they get out on the highways, and they get hurt or they starve out in the desert or die of thirst,” Blayney said.
Should the slaughterhouse return, horses that would be neglected and suffer would have some value again, she said.
In late June, a New Mexico company was granted permission to open a horse processing plant, becoming the first such operation in the nation since the government closed the industry seven years ago. Federal officials also might approve slaughter permits to companies in Iowa and Missouri, but threats of lawsuits may stall that action.
Strong emotions surface when people talk about horse slaughter, said Melinda Roche, a veterinarian with Roche Equine Veterinary Services.
Canners, she said, are not causing the problem, and the public shouldn’t consider the industry a bad thing. Yes, many horses are treated as family, but they are livestock and are consumed around the world.
“Unless you have a horse and can afford to take care of it, you shouldn’t really be able to tell everybody else what to do,” Roche said.
Twin Falls deputies often depend on Roche to evaluate horses they are investigating. Roche goes out of her way to make time, Brown said.
“These calls are hard,” she said.
Roche is thankful, though, for the chance to improve the horses’ plight.
Many owners simply don’t know how to care for their animals, she said.
“I see thin horses all the time, and I educate my clients everyday about how to feed them and take care of their teeth and everything needed to get weight on them. These horses I’m going and (investigating) are emaciated. They are malnourished. Otherwise, they don’t need to be seized.”
The Sheriff’s Office process is about the only solution to the problem now. The Magic Valley has no horse rescue, and most elsewhere in Idaho and the West are overflowing, Blayney said.
“Because there are no regulations in Idaho of rescue operations, sometimes those rescues are worse than where they’ve come from. … They have good hearts and good intentions, but if they get more horses than they can afford, horses are worse off.”
Roche said people who have rescued horses often ask her to work for free.
“Well, this is what I do for my living. And if I did everything for free, I’d be starving, too,” she said.
Asked for the solution to horse neglect, Brown and Lori Stewart paused, looked at each other and laughed.
“We laugh, but it is that common sense,” she said.
Although horse seizures have increased recently, the statistics fluctuate over the years, Stewart said. What is certain, however, is that more and more area horses are owned by those who don’t have the means to take care of them. That’s the hardest part, Brown said.
“It’s not like keeping a goldfish,” Sheriff McFall said.
Ranchers, those in the livestock industry, and people who take care of their horses all cringe at the mention of horse neglect because oftentimes the public can’t see the differences between owners, Brown said.
“The people who take care of their animals and who have the means to, it’s a black eye on them, too,” he said.