An equine neglect case involving more than 150 horses would be a huge undertaking for any organization. For a law enforcement agency in a rural area, it could prove to be downright impossible without the right outside support. Thankfully for the horses involved, officials from the Camp County Sheriff’s Office in Pittsburg, Texas, didn’t let the size of the problem they faced last summer deter them. Instead, they reached out within their community and even further; through collaboration, the seemingly impossible became possible.
When I was looped in, the planning and preparation for this case had already been going on for weeks, if not months . Neighbors of an alleged equine rescue facility had contacted the sheriff’s office to report underweight horses, and officials eventually obtained a seizure warrant. As a member of the Humane Society of the United States’ equine team, I was assisting with a cruelty training for law enforcement and animal control officers in Kansas in June 2019 when I got a call from my supervisor, asking if I could fly to Texas the next day to help our Animal Rescue Team with an equine case. For a longtime horse lover like me, who had just spent several days helping prepare officers to respond to equine cruelty, there was no way I could pass up such an opportunity.
When I arrived the next morning, we kicked things off with a 6 a.m. pre-seizure meeting to go over everyone’s roles for the day. There were members of the local sheriff’s office, staff from the HSUS and what seemed to be an army of volunteers gathered from the community by Safe Haven Equine Rescue and Retirement Home, a Texas-based nonprofit. In addition to the army of people, there was also a noticeable armada of heavy-duty trucks and horse trailers ready to supply the horsepower we would need for the task at hand.
After a quick debrief we divided into two teams: one to go to the seizure site to collect and transport the animals, and a second to start the intake process and sort the animals into their new temporary homes. I was slated for the receiving team and selected to help with the intake photos that would document the conditions of the horses on Day One.
When I arrived at the receiving location, I could see that the Safe Haven volunteers had done a considerable amount of preparation for this day, well before the first horse stepped off the trailer. Numerous pens and corrals of various sizes were set up and fitted with freshwater buckets to greet their new, needy inhabitants. An assembly line of sorts was also in place to facilitate the unloading of all those trucks and trailers from that morning, and then guide the horses toward the vet inspection, photographic evidence collection (where I would spend the next 14 hours) and finally to their designated pens.
Even though I never made it to the seizure site itself, the condition of the horses stepping off the trailer told me everything I needed to know. Long overgrown hooves, knotty tangled manes, noticeably irritated skin and many horses so visibly thin you could easily count and feel each rib and their matching boney, protruding hips. If the sight of them wasn’t enough, I could smell many of the horses even before I saw them. Not the typical, nostalgic horse scent that enchants every equine enthusiast, but rather the foul stench of thrush—a common bacterial infection in the horse’s hoof that flourishes in wet and dirty environments.
One by one the horses went through the assembly line. Into the metal chute to be examined by the vet and his team of vet techs. Checked for any noticeable health concerns, cataloged and given the appropriate vaccinations and first round of dewormer. Then through the chute to me for their photoshoot.
Every representative of the domestic equine family came through the chute that day. Draft horses, miniature horses, donkeys, mules, stallions, mares, geldings and just about every common breed of horse you could imagine. There was even a pony-sized mare and her several-days-old foal, and another mare-and-foal duo we were initially unaware of, until their frantic calls to one another after being separated gave away the nature of their relationship . Some were very easy to handle and clearly had experienced basic training at some point, and some were every bit as feral and wild as a mustang—literally. But they were all shaken up by the sudden upheaval and new environment.
Sixteen and a half hours later, the last of the 159 horses had been vet checked, photographed and tucked away for the night. It was a long, hot, sweaty day in the 90-plus-degree Texas heat, but the peaceful hum of all those horses munching away on fresh hay was worth every bit of sweat and ache that plagued all of our bodies.
As I said before, an equine case of this size would seem daunting for anyone, even with the deepest pockets. My experience assisting with the equine cruelty training before this case showed me that for some agencies the lack of finances, lack of experience with horses and lack of resources like a horse trailer or a place to house even one horse can prevent them from acting on even small cases of alleged equine neglect and abuse. So what was the key that made this equine case of more than 150 horses successful for a rural county in Texas? Collaboration.
As I recommended to the training attendees in Kansas, partnering with a local, reputable equine rescue like Safe Haven is a great way to mitigate the resource barriers you may encounter. Safe Haven was obviously able to provide its wealth of knowledge about equine care, and it also has plenty of experience assisting law enforcement with these types of cases. The group mobilized its army of experienced volunteers and assembled the fleet of vehicles and trailers needed to remove all the horses in one day.
Finally, the Camp County Sheriff’s Office asked the HSUS to help with evidence collection and additional staffing, and that assistance helped make the rescue possible , Sheriff Alan McCandless noted afterward.
There’s power in numbers. Rather than be deterred by the size of the task before you, look beyond what is at your immediate disposal and collaborate with those within the community and beyond to find the additional support you need to facilitate the lifesaving work we are all called to do .