Animal control officers could suggest criminal charges against the California Equine Retirement Foundation, after the removal of about 40 horses from the sanctuary
By DAVID DOWNEY
Riverside Press Enterprise
Retired racehorses have long thrived at a respected Riverside County sanctuary, but the operator of the ranch now stands accused of starving horses, many of whose ribs and other bones visibly protrude through their skin.
As animal control officers investigate and weigh whether to suggest that criminal charges be filed, a nearby sanctuary says it rescued about 40 of the nearly 70 horses that lived there. The operator of the California Equine Retirement Foundation in San Jacinto acknowledges some need to be fattened up, but denies any horses are critically underweight.
Orange resident Jenny Earhart, who helped move the horses, said she was shocked on a recent visit to the retirement foundation.
“I made a comment about one — ‘That one looks horrible,’” Earhart said. “He was emaciated. You could count every rib.”
And, she said, “there wasn’t any feed on the property.”
Carrie Ard, CEO of California Equine Retirement Foundation, countered that her ranch has provided plenty of hay and other feed all along.
Ard attributed the weight loss to an exceptionally rainy winter and ranch flooding, a string of bad alfalfa lots that failed to nourish horses, and the difficulty aging horses had maintaining weight. She said the rain curbed some horses’ appetites, and damaged their feed to the point that it reduced the nutrition they were receiving.
“I have never in the past had a problem,” Ard said. “My horses have always been in excellent condition.”
However, Ard said, “It was a bad winter.”
The challenges come a little more than two years after the foundation lost its nonprofit status.
Jennifer Parsons, animal control supervisor for the Ramona Humane Society, said her agency is investigating the animals’ treatment and will decide soon, in consultation with police, whether to recommend the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office pursue charges of animal cruelty or animal neglect. The society handles animal control services in San Jacinto and Hemet.
The potential for animal neglect charges is “very high,” Parsons said.
Animal control officers also are monitoring the horses that were relocated, she added.
Helen Meredith, president of the nearby 27-acre United Pegasus Foundation ranch, which also is in San Jacinto, said she brought over 38 horses between May 26 and June 4 after learning of their condition at the retirement foundation, which she said ranged from fair to poor to critical.
Meredith said she got permission from horses’ owners to move them.One owner, however, said he declined to give permission after visiting his horse and finding him well.
Meredith had help from Earhart, who said she took three horses to her Premier Equine Rehab facility in Orange, where she retrains retired racehorses for second careers in rodeos, shows and trail riding.
Earhart said she previously had delivered several horses to the retirement foundation in recent years because of its stellar reputation. And Earhart visited the foundation ranch a few weeks ago because a horse she had taken in, Aguas, had suffered a significant injury racing and wasn’t a good candidate for retraining.
She thought it would be better if he were sent to a sanctuary for retired racehorses.
Earhart said she was horrified by what she saw but dropped off the horse anyway, thinking that would give her a way back in to help other horses there, in addition to retrieving Aguas.
Ard, the retirement foundation CEO, said she found Earhart’s behavior to be peculiar.
“If she felt that my horses were in that bad of a condition … why would you leave horses?” Ard said.
Ard disputed Meredith’s numbers, saying that 36 horses were removed, not 41. She also disputed Meredith’s contention that some horses were in critical condition.
Ard acknowledged some were underweight, saying the rain was partly to blame.
The horses are fed whether it’s raining or not, she said, but “you can’t control how wet it gets their feed and how much they eat.”
Ard said the ranch also bought several lots of alfalfa that turned out to be of poor quality.
“It was too green, and it was just going through the horses,” she said.
Meredith said she didn’t accept either argument “because we’re just down the street,” and she had no problem maintaining her horses’ weight. She said she believes the horses are thin because they were underfed.
While walking across the sprawling 30-acre retirement foundation ranch Monday, June 10, Ard said she is working to pack weight on the 22 horses still at her facility, which had 67 before the removal. There appeared to be plenty of hay in stall troughs.
“You can see all the horses are being fed plenty of feed so they can gain weight,” she said.
On Monday, a small amount of hay was scattered on the concrete floor of a large three-sided, covered storage shed. However, on Tuesday morning, June 11, Ard said, a fresh delivery of 60 hay bales arrived.
The degree to which a horse is well fed is measured by something called the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System, a widely used benchmark. It uses a 1-to-9 scale, with 1 being skinny, 9 fat and 5 ideal.
After animal control officers evaluated the horses, Parsons estimated a few were at 1 or 2 on the scale, and that the majority were at 3 or 4. Some were at 5, she said.
Described as “poor” condition, a score of 1 indicates a horse’s ribs and other bones are protruding prominently and the bone structure in the neck, withers and shoulder is “easily noticeable,” among other details. A score of 2 is characterized as “very thin” with the ribs prominent and bone structure of the neck, withers and shoulder “faintly discernible,” according to the Habitat for Horses website.
The system describes 3 as “thin” with “slight fat over ribs” and “ribs easily discernible,” and 4 as “moderately thin” with a “faint outline of ribs discernible.” A score of 5 is “moderate” or “ideal weight” and ribs aren’t visible.
Parsons said none of the horses was in danger of dying. But, she said, “These horses need fattening up.”
At her ranch, Meredith pointed out one horse that she said was in especially bad shape. That was a 21-year-old gelding named Sigfreto, whom she said won more than $500,000 in his racing days. His hip bones poked through his gray-white coat and rib cage was clearly visible.
Grace Belcuore, 91, who founded the California Equine Retirement Foundation in 1986 and was pushed off the board in a bitter fight for control in 2014, visited Meredith’s ranch Wednesday, June 5.
“She was in tears when she saw Sigfreto,” Meredith said.
“His bones were just sticking out,” Belcuore said in a recent interview. “It broke my heart.”
Ard acknowledged Sigfreto was underweight, but disagreed with Meredith’s characterization.
“If Sigfreto was in critical condition, don’t you think that animal control would have done something to me at that very time?” she said.
Ard said she had Sigfreto on a special diet for older horses “to try to bulk him up.”
“Even before this ranch, Sigfreto’s always had an eating problem,” she said. “It was always hard as he got older to put on weight.”
Meredith said another malnourished horse she moved was a 21-year-old bay gelding named “Truly a Judge,” who won $764,342 between 2000 and 2007.
“He’s such a big horse,” Meredith said. “And he’s just a rack of bones.”
At the retirement foundation, several horses appeared to be well fed. Others appeared to be skinny.
Ard permitted each to be photographed except for one: a dark brown horse with bony hips and clearly visible ribs. A strip of duct tape was pasted over the name plate on its stall.
“That belongs to somebody who doesn’t want her horse to be brought into this,” Ard said.
Another owner, Dominick Fazzio of La Quinta, discussed the condition of his aging former racehorse at the retirement foundation. He said he and wife, Mary Agnes, visited Justfortherecord after hearing of concerns being raised about treatment.
“He’s been where he needs to be, in a retirement community,” Fazzio said.
And he said Justfortherecord looked good.
“I thought he was in really good condition for a 30-year-old horse with arthritis,” Fazzio said. “His eyes were bright. His skin was shiny … . We saw no reason to move him.”
Meredith said other owners have told her “they were devastated to see what was being done with their horses.”
The concerns are being raised after state officials revoked the retirement foundation’s nonprofit charity status in February 2017, according to the state Attorney General’s website. Ard said attorneys are working to restore that status.
Ard declined to reveal the group’s annual budget, but said it spends about $90,000 a year on feed. Daily, she said, each horse is fed two flakes of alfalfa in the morning, two flakes of alfalfa in the afternoon, plus oat hay and supplements.
“We have no intentions of shutting down,” she said.