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Originally published: 2013-03-08 12:54:14
Last modified: 2013-03-09 10:01:08

Horse owner cited for animal cruelty

Animal control officers cited a Vilas horse farm owner for animal cruelty Thursday after an emaciated horse had to be euthanized at the farm.


Watauga County Animal Control responded Sunday to Dutch Creek Trails on Rubin Walker Road after a complaint about a horse down in the pasture, said Chief Animal Control Officer Anita Gomez.


After consulting with a veterinarian, the decision was made to euthanize the horse, which weighed only about 600 pounds and was determined to be at least 20 years old, according to Animal Control officers.


Keith Ward, who has owned Dutch Creek Trails for more than a decade, received a civil citation for cruelty to an animal for "failure to provide veterinary care," he said. The citation carries a $50 fine, which Ward paid Friday.


"I made it very clear that he can't have these animals out there looking like that," said Stacy Shoemake, the Animal Control officer who issued the citation. "This is unacceptable."


Shoemake said he took photographs of the horse as part of the investigation but would not release them to the public. He said that a horse experiencing weight loss as extreme as this case must either be under close veterinary watch or euthanized to avoid an inhumane situation.


Ward said he left town last week knowing the Appaloosa was doing poorly.


"I told him, 'Ol' buddy, I'm going to give you one more week and see how you do,'" Ward said.


But on Sunday, a farm caretaker found the horse down on the ground and notified Ward's son, he said. Before any action was taken, the son left to deal with other horses that had escaped a pen elsewhere, Ward said. When he returned, Animal Control and a veterinarian already had been called to the scene.


Ward said he feels now that he should have put down the horse before he left.


"I should've put it down then, but I like to give them every chance," Ward said. "That's a hard thing to do."


Ward said the horse had not been ridden since it was purchased about four months ago as part of a two-for-one deal. The previous owner wanted to keep the horse together with another that Ward was buying, he said.


He said the staff had provided it supplements and a private hay roll because it refused to fight its way in among other horses.


Animal Control also was called to Dutch Creek Trails about two weeks ago after a report that the horses had no hay, but officers determined the complaint was unfounded.


Gomez said they looked at 23 horses that were there that day but did not see the Appaloosa in question or any others in dire shape. Horse Helpers, a local nonprofit horse rescue, has not assumed control of any horses from Dutch Creek Trails in recent months, she added.


"Any time that you have a stable, boarding facility, riding trail facility -- any place that has a large amount of horses or animals -- normally, at some point in time we end up having complaints," she said.


Ward also disputed rumors that four horses had died on the farm in the last month. Dutch Creek Trails did lose one other horse this winter -- a mare that had been retired from trail rides two summers ago, he said.


Animal Control officers said they had no evidence of any other problems at the farm and said they did not expect this situation to lead to further charges. Sheriff Len Hagaman said his office would assign an investigator only if requested by the District Attorney's Office.


Shoemake said he did not believe Ward had received a citation for neglect or cruelty before. Watauga County Animal Control last cited a horse owner for a similar situation in summer 2011, he said.


He urged anyone who witnesses possible neglect or cruelty to call Animal Control at (828) 262-1672.


Ward emphasized that the horses at Dutch Creek Trails were being well cared-for and provided with plenty of feed, hay and water.


"We're not monsters here; we take care of our critters," Ward said. "They're my bread and butter. I would be stupid not to take care of my horses."