Warning: This story contains graphic images of injured and dying horses and may not be appropriate for all readers.
The owner of a thoroughbred race horse seized by the Clarke County Sheriff’s on August 2nd will be arraigned in Clarke County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Friday August 12th. Court documents allege that the animal’s owner, Sylvester McGill of Charles Town, West Virginia, allowed the animal to be “neglected, cruelly treated and deprived of necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment so as to constitute a direct and immediate threat” to the horse’s life.
“Sonny B Crus in”, a five-year-old chestnut gelding thoroughbred, was seized from a farm at 77 Clifton Road in Berryville, Virginia by Sheriff’s deputies Sergeant Kenny Gall and Jimmy Herron after receiving a complaint from a citizen. Upon arrival at the farm where the horse was being kept, Gall and Herron determined that the animal’s conditions were life threatening.
“We could see right away that the horse was in poor condition” Sergeant Gall said. “We contacted veterinarian Ian Harrison and described the animal’s condition to him. Based on Dr. Harrison’s recommendation we decided to seize the animal and have it transported for medical attention.”
“I examined the horse and found him to be depressed, emaciated and unwilling to walk” Harrison said in letter included in court documents that will presented on Friday. “There were chronic abrasions, contusions and lacerations over his entire body, the right stifle was dramatically swollen and there was a large puncture wound apparently involving the right hock.”
Harrison also noted that Sonny’s blood work was compatible with chronic infection and muscle wasting and that a fecal exam confirmed indicated a significant gastro-intestinal parasite burden.
“Sonny basically looks like he has been hit by a truck” Dr. Harrison said in a phone call from his Clarke County veterinary clinic. “He’s got wounds, scars and swelling all over his body.”
Harrison, who has been a veterinarian for 35 years and has practiced in Clarke County for the last four years, said that Sonny’s condition is even more shocking given the fact that he was racing at Charles Town racetrack as recently as May, 2011.
“Every thoroughbred has a registration number tattooed on the inside of its lip” Harrison pointed out. “Based on Sonny’s tatoo we know that he was healthy enough to race in May. It’s amazing how fast he has declined. He looks like a bag of bones now.”
Horse owner and enthusiast Robina Bouffault said “It’s easy for me to become quite incensed when I see such needless cruelty to any animal.”
“Sonny was indeed a good racing animal in West Virginia, and it is my understanding that he had won more than one race this year” Bouffault said. “I can only surmise that he must have had some kind of injury and so was â€˜dumped’ by his owner. The field where he was dumped, while in Clarke County, is owned by a West Virginia resident active in the racing industry. And “neglect” is not the proper word here – it was very deliberate abuse. The horse was so terribly emaciated and so badly torn up, it is a miracle he is still alive.”
Bouffault describes Clarke County as a very ‘horsey’ community with in excess of 8,000 horses. She said that although Clarke County has had a few incidences of horse neglect, on the whole, local horse owners are very responsible with the care of their horses.
“What neglect we do see is more a question of the owner’s economic stress due to the very poor economy and complete lack of a valid horse market – with sales of performance horses low to non-existent” Bouffault said.
Dr. Harrison says that he has seen the instance of horse abuse increase by 30% – 40% over the past year. He attributes much of the problem to Congress’s changes last year to legislation governing horse slaughter. Harrison said legal changes that restrict what can be done with an animal’s remains after it has been euthanized has made the animals “worthless” from an economic point of view once they are no longer wanted by their owners.
“Congress should have addressed the issue of how horse slaughter could be carried out humanely but they didn’t” Harrison said “The new laws leave the owner with no way to get rid of the horse.”
To illustrate the problem of unwanted horses in this area, Harrison said that a friend of his recently went to a horse auction in Winchester and took along his horse trailer.
“When he came back to his trailer someone had placed two skinny horses in the trailer just to get rid of them” Harrison said.
Robina Bouffault attributes much of the horse neglect problem to the lack of oversight by the industry that benefits most from horses; horse breeders and racers.
“The main culprits in this matter are the racing industry” Bouffault said. “Clarke is next door to the Charles Town, West Virginia race track, where if a horse is no longer usable to race, either due to injury or other factors – like being “slow” – it is simply “thrown away” like a piece of used Kleenex to a fate too often of neglect or death, even when very young. “Sonny” is a product of that world, where fully 95% of thoroughbreds bred for racing end up with very uncertain and often agonizing futures.”
Bouffault said that horse racing participants should be asked why they have yet to reform an industry that obviously results in “so much neglect and abuse of the horses we all love”.
Although Sonny’s rescue by the Clarke County Sherriff’s Department appears to have saved the animal’s life – Dr. Harrison says that Sonny’s prognosis for recovery should be excellent – Bouffault says that other horses on the farm where Sonny was seized have not fared as well.
“In January 2010, I intervened directly in an abuse case in the same field, where the horse had to be euthanized” Bouffault said. Bouffault described a moving scene where a dying horse lay next to the remnants of a hay bale provided by compassionate neighbors the day before. Bouffault said that the hay bale was quickly eaten by the 15 horses being boarded in the field at the time.
For Bouffault, preventing animal abuse – including dogs and cats – is an important part of her life’s work. In addition to her many civic responsibilities, Sonny’s rescue is part of a long-term coordinated effort with the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department to focus more on animal cruelty. Bouffault has also financed a flyer distributed by the Clarke County Equine Association to educate the public on the impacts and issues associated with abused animals.
She has also created an ad-hoc shelter for abused horses on her White Post farm.
“Hopefully, the owner will NOT get the horse back, given his poor treatment of his horse to-date” Bouffault said. “I have offered to take the horse at my farm, to join a few others I have in what I call my “welfare field”, with lots of grass and good care. Sonny is indeed in VERY bad shape and whether or not he will ever be usable as a riding horse is unknown. However, I have always remarked on the ability of horses to bounce back from bad injuries when properly tended, so do not despair of his making a good to full recovery with some good vet care and a lot of TLC.”
Bouffault said that she believes that individuals have a sacred responsibility to protect the animals given into their care.
“I will quote a saying by the French pilot and writer St. Exupery in his book “The Little Prince” Boffault said. “We are responsible for those that we tame”.
Sylvester McGill, who Sergeant Gall said has been charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor which carries a possible penalty of one year in jail, a $2500 fine or both.
McGill is scheduled to appear in court for a hearing on the matter on Friday, August 12 at 1:30PM.