Two recent cases in which horses were seized and their owners accused of cruelty have highlighted just how much of a challenge it can be to care for these animals.
It costs a lot of money — some say buying a horse is the least expensive part of horse ownership. And it takes a lot of time, energy and love. If the horse owner can’t keep up on any of these fronts, they can wind up facing criminal charges for neglect.
The paddocks and stalls at Serenity
Farms Equine Sanctuary on Byrd Mill Road are well past full, with 34 horses currently at a site intended for a capacity of no more than 26. The facility was developed as a safe place for horses seized in criminal cases, but with nine horses arriving in a short period in late May, staff and volunteers have been operating in overdrive.
The circumstances that led the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office to take these animals from their owners are still somewhat murky.
In one case, Jean Donhauser and her daughter Samantha have been accused of neglecting horses. Jean Donhauser says she doesn’t own the horses, her daughter does, and Jean couldn’t afford to care for them. Court records suggest that Samantha Donhauser recently encountered significant medical challenges, although it’s unclear how they affected her ability to support the horses.
In the other case, Nancy and Scott Pauley allegedly left their horses in poor condition on leased land.
Though animal control officers removed the horses from their owners, the animals cannot be sold or adopted unless Louisa General District Court Judge Claiborne Stokes rules that the horses were, in fact, treated with cruelty.
It’s been more than a month since the animals arrived at Serenity Farms, and the facility is spending upwards of $400 each day on their upkeep, along with that of the other horses and goats that were already there.
“The county has been wonderful in that they made sure the horses had what they needed right away,” Rhondavena LaPorte, Serenity Farms co-owner, said this week. “They paid for the vet to do the horses’ teeth. We paid for the farrier work, with part donated from the community. We pay for all the daily care, but we’ve had people show up with 25 bales of hay. The community help has saved the county a great deal of money.”
LaPorte said she first developed the idea of a rescue sanctuary a few years ago when she saw how horses seized in a different case were kept for months in a small pen by the Louisa County Animal Shelter.
“The shelter people did the best they could, but they said, ‘We’re not horse people,’” LaPorte said. “The horses were okay, but I remember thinking it would be nice if they could go somewhere with people who knew how to take care of them, rehab them a little bit.”
The horses that came to Serenity Farms last month arrived with myriad health problems, LaPorte said, the most apparent being their low weight. In the past month one of the Pauleys’ horses gained 160 pounds, while another gained 140.
The Donhauser horses suffered from rain rot, a condition that happens when horses are left ungroomed and stay wet for a long period of time. It causes a fungus that can lead horses to grow coats with no fur, which can cause an infection.
An emergency farrier had to come to Serenity Farms to treat the Pauley horses’ hoofs, which were “long and jagged,” LaPorte said. She said their teeth had developed points that could make it difficult for the horses to eat.
Normally, LaPorte and her crew of 62 active volunteers would have started training the horses by now, to start them on a path toward eventual adoption outside the sanctuary. But because the horses were so underweight, the farm is waiting until they reach the six-week mark.
“When they drop down to a body condition of two or one, there’s always potential for some kind of organ damage,” LaPorte said. “[Two animals’] blood work showed [their bodies] were eating their own muscle. Sometimes they’re here for six months and they gain weight, and one day their heart gives out. And that’s really hard, because you become attached to them, bringing them back from the brink, thinking they’re going to make it.”
LaPorte, who grew up around her grandfather’s horses, expresses disbelief that people would invest in these large animals and then turn around and neglect them.
“Sometimes they just don’t know horses,” she said. “They think they can put them out on pasture and the grass looks green, so it’ll be fine. They don’t understand how fragile their digestive systems are and how much more care they need when it’s hot or it’s cold out.”
She said maintaining horses needs to go beyond giving them proper feed, water, shelter and medical treatment.
“I have no concept about people who have horses and don’t ride them, or don’t train them,” she said. “Some of these horses may have been pasture ornaments: “Look, I have these pretty horses.’ I don’t think that horses are emotionally happy unless they have a job.”
Seizure hearings are scheduled on July 3 and July 10 in Louisa General District Court for the Pauleys’ and Donhausers’ horses.