After being rescued May 27 from a Columbia Falls pasture, 17 horses are growing accustomed to their new home at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.
While all display protruding ribs and hipbones, a few have also developed dull, shaggy coats, an earmarker of severe malnutrition. In the late morning sunshine, they nibbled from a round hay bale and watched people drive past to vote in the primary elections.
When one of the mares gave birth several days ago, the herd’s voluntary caretakers named the foal “Miracle,” but note that all the horses are deserving of the name.
Scott Smiley, a local veterinarian with livestock training, examined the animals on May 15, while they were still located in the Columbia Falls pasture. He rated the animals as being at the very bottom of the Henneke Body Conditioning Score Chart.
This method, which measures a horse’s body fat levels on a scale of 1-10, considers a horse with a level five score as being at an ideal weight. Smiley estimated the rescued horses as being at level one. Horses at this level are in danger of starving to death if no action is taken.
After the horses’ owner disappeared, the owner of the land on which the herd was pastured donated half a ton of hay and cared for them until deputies transported the animals to the fairgrounds.
After learning of their condition, Lauren Barat is one of several volunteers offering their time and extensive equine knowledge towards the animals’ rehabilitation. Barat, who has several of her own horses stabled at the fairgrounds, says she stops by three times a day.
“They really need some TLC and love,” she said of the animals, who come up and nuzzle her when she enters the corral.
While the horses are currently feeding off of a 1,500-pound round hay bale, they are in need of other food, salt blocks and veterinary care. Barat estimates the adult horses need to gain a minimum of 150 pounds each.
“It would be nice if we had a few more people donating items,” Barat said. “If I had the money, I’d take care of them in an instant.”
Bob Watne, along with his wife, Beth, stopped by after learning of the horses’ plight and unloaded 30 alfalfa bales from their pickup.
“It’s disgusting when you see this,” Bob Watne said. “There’s no excuse for this.”
Beth Watne, who estimates that the 17 horses will consume at least six bales a day, also purchased a trace mineral salt block for the animals.
“They need the nutrients,” she said. “They are deficient in everything.”
Despite the neglect, the horses are friendly, especially a curious colt nicknamed Spitfire, who greets visitors to the corral.
In his nine years of serving as one of Flathead County’s animal wardens, Paul Charbonneau said he hasn’t seen an animal neglect case of this scale. His paramount concern revolves around the expense of feeding and caring for the horses.
“Right now the money is coming out of the county budget, but we’ll try to get restitution,” Charbonneau said.
Charbonneau says that while no charges have been filed, the horses’ owner will likely face felony charges. Under Montana law, aggravated animal cruelty applies when the herd in question numbers over 10 animals.
Anyone wishing to donate food or money should contact the Sheriff’s Department at (406) 758-5585.
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