The universal birthday for all harness racing horses is January 1 in North America. But for 23 Standardbreds from Carroll County, Md., October 6 might be a fitting date for the start of a new life.
October 6, 2011 is the date 23 Standardbreds, ranging from age 2 to 15, arrived at Hanover Shoe Farms in Hanover, Pa., after legal seizure by the Humane Society of Carroll County (HSCC) due to severe neglect. The horses, then owned by Don Walters of Mt. Airy, Md., had been the subject of scrutiny by the Humane Society for more than a year.
Most of the 11 stallions and 12 fillies and mares were largely kept inside at all times on the 111-acre farm, two or more horses per makeshift stall, several standing on compacted manure built up over prolonged confinement, hundreds of pounds underweight, some with long, untrimmed feet curled up at the toes.
Efforts by HSCC enforcement officers to improve conditions for the horses made little headway for more than a year prior to seizure. The Humane Society's shelter was not equipped for horses and lacked both foster care options and funding to care for 23 horses. The HSCC contacted Ellen Harvey, the administrator of the USTA's Support Our Standardbreds (SOS) program, in August 2010 to see if financial help might be available to care for the horses if they were seized. SOS provides financial assistance to law enforcement agencies or charitable groups caring for Standardbreds that have been seized, surrendered in lieu of prosecution, or abandoned.
"I assured Mrs. Ratliff (director of the HSCC) that SOS could help the horses, but only they had the legal authority to remove the horses if they believed that was necessary," said Harvey. "I was in regular contact with them for more than a year, from August 2010 to September 2011. I offered help from generating publicity to finding foster homes to raising money to finding veterinarians that could assert that the horses' living conditions were not humane.
"There were minimal improvements, but nothing steady. The only organization in Maryland that could have helped with a large number of seized horses, Days End Farm, was caring for more than 100 Arabians seized from the eastern shore of Maryland, so they could not help."
In early September 2011, two horses became trapped in a hay rack. They were extricated by the fire department and one mare was sent to Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center for treatment. She has recovered and been placed for adoption.
HSCC officials then asked the USTA for assistance in providing expert valuation of the horses as Walters asserted that the horses, who in addition to being in extremely poor physical condition, were largely unraced, untrained, unhandled and out of unraced mares, were valuable. In late September, Russell Williams, chairman of the Standardbred Horse Sales Company and vice president of Hanover Shoe Farms, visited the farm, along with Dr. Bridgette Jablonsky, manager of Hanover Shoe Farms.
"It was the worst thing I've ever seen," said Williams. "I didn't think Standardbred people would ever treat their horses as these were treated. They were slowly dying. There were 3-year-old adult horses still in stalls with their dams. Several stood high above us, since they were standing on several feet of manure. Some put their heads out and were friendly. Others just stood in the corner; they looked as if they'd given up. On top of that, contrary to Walter's opinion, the horses have no commercial value as Standardbreds."
Within days, Williams arranged for Hanover Shoe Farms to be certified as a foster home so that the horses could be removed by the HSCC, if necessary, and cared for at Hanover Shoe Farms with financial assistance from the SOS program. Hanover staff built nine paddocks for the stallions in 24 hours.
On October 6, 2011, HSCC Officer Brian Rupp gave Walters the option to surrender the horses and avoid prosecution. Walters declined to do so. Rupp took the horses into the legal custody of the HSCC. The horses were immediately shipped an hour north to Hanover Shoe Farms by about a dozen volunteers from Days End Farm.
For about three hours on October 6, each horse was unloaded and evaluated by Dr. Jablonsky. Many horses had abnormal gaits and long toes resembling duck flippers. Of the 23 horses, 16 had a Henneke Body Condition Score of 3 or less (5 is ideal, 1 is near death without intervention), eight had a score of 1.5 or less. The most emaciated horses had concave chests and rumps.
All the horses were given 24-hour turnout with free choice hay and feed and, in the ensuing weeks, were wormed, vaccinated, given dental and hoof care at the expense of Hanover Shoe Farms. Eight of the stallions were gelded. They have collectively gained thousands of pounds.
Walters was charged on 23 counts of "animal cruelty failure to provide." A plea bargain was reached on March 2 in which Walters received probation before judgment. He surrendered permanent ownership of 18 of the horses to the HSCC, who then transferred custody to Hanover Shoe Farms. The USTA's SOS program provided reimbursement to Hanover for the horses' board at discounted rates until legal custody was transferred in late February and early March. Hanover bore all costs for veterinary care and paddock construction.
Five horses remain in dispute and Walters is seeking court approval to regain custody of those horses. Resolution on that matter is expected on March 30. He received probation for three years and was ordered to, "not own or possess horses unless ordered by this court."
Walters has been suspended from the USTA in accordance with the Association's bylaws regarding financial irresponsibility as well as Article 1, section 3, which empowers the president to revoke membership of an individual "whose experience, character or general fitness are such that the participation of such person in harness racing shall not be consistent with the best interest of the sport or whose membership would be detrimental to or reflect adversely or unfavorably on harness racing or upon the Association."
Hanover has scheduled an "Adoption Day" open house on Sunday, April 1, from 12 noon to 4 p.m. at their satellite farm at 330 Hoover Road, Littlestown, Pa. Horses may be adopted by individuals or 501(c)(3) groups. No papers will be conferred, but in appropriate cases, the USTA will provide performance certificates at no charge so horses can compete, after training, in breed restricted classes or shows.
"These are healthy horses with unlimited potential in pleasure disciplines, but, except for two mares, have had no training and minimal handling," says Dr. Bridgette Jablonsky, manager of Hanover Shoe Farms. "They need consistent and extended handling and training. They are not for beginners and will need skilled and patient horsemanship. They're friendly, surprisingly resilient and trusting of humans. The sky is the limit for them now."
Photos of the horses up for adoption can be seen at this link.
There is no adoption fee. The horses are up to date on all veterinary care and have current Coggins and documents needed for travel.
Those who would like to adopt a horse must apply to or already be approved by the Standardbred Retirement Foundation (www.adoptahorse.org), New Vocations (www.horseadoption.com) or Omega Horse Rescue (http://omegahorserescue.com). Prospective adopters are asked to specify their interest in a Hanover horse when applying for approval for first time adopters or proof of approval for past adopters.
Those approved for adoption by other 501(c)(3) horse adoption groups are welcome to adopt and should contact Ellen Harvey (contact information below) with proof of that approval before March 30.
Those with proof of approval by a group above or prior confirmation with Harvey of another group's approval before March 30 will be able to select and leave with a horse that day. Others can apply for approval if they see a horse of interest on April 1.
The list of horses available for adoption follows. There are still five horses whose permanent custody is in dispute. One horse has been adopted by Days End and several others, who were in the worst condition at time of seizure, need additional time to gain weight and muscle tone. They will be available for adoption later this spring. For questions, contact Ellen Harvey, the USTA's coordinator of Standardbred support programs at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732.780.3700.
SOS is now in its third year of operation and has assisted dozens of law enforcement and equine welfare groups from Maine to California in the care of 79 horses. The program, the only one of its kind by a breed registry, was created in 2010 to assist Standardbreds whose care has fallen to a criminal level and for which legal intervention was exercised.
Following are horses available for adoption:
Tag #45--9yo gelding--Flying W Road--solid bay
Tag #35--5yo mare--Flying W Grace--Bay/white
Tag #60--15yo mare--Tyler's Bella--Brown/white
Tag #48--13yo mare--Sweetdreamsofjewel--solid bay
Tag #36--3yo filly--Unnamed--bay/white Freeze brand #4G463
Tag #37--10 yo mare--Flying W Nukes--black/small star--this mare raced 3 starts
Tag #64--3 yo filly--Unnamed--bay/white--identity not yet confirmed
Tag #61--16 yo mare--FW Jewells Mark--bay/white--raced 2 years, 32 starts, 6 wins
Tag #58--11 yo bay mare--Flying W Yoggie--brown/white
from the USTA Communications Department