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Northfield case points to larger problem for state’s horses

One of the horses from the Southwick Farm nuzzles a volunteer at Live and Let Live Farm in Chichester earlier this month. 

(Courtesy of Live and Let Live Farm)

One of the horses from the Southwick Farm nuzzles a volunteer at Live and Let Live Farm in Chichester earlier this month. (Courtesy of Live and Let Live Farm)

For nearly a century, Bert Southwick has tended to the same 250-acre stretch of rolling Northfield farmland, tilling the fields, reaping their bounty and delivering fresh eggs to neighbors on a horse-drawn buggy. He is 90 years old and revered by many as a symbol of Yankee tenacity.

So it perhaps came as a shock last week when the Northfield police, working with officials from the state Department of Agriculture, seized several horses from a barn on his property, citing malnourishment and deplorable living conditions. The animals were filthy and emaciated, their muscles wasting away, the police said. Their stalls were found coated in excrement.

Southwick has not been charged with any crime, and investigators insist he was not responsible for the animals’ care. His case, however, points to a longstanding problem that animal rights advocates say has become ever more salient since the recession: ensuring adequate care for the state’s equine population.

Officials estimate there are between 38,000 and 42,000 horse owners in the state, said Patricia Morris, an attorney who specializes in equine cases and who chairs the governor’s Commission on the Humane Treatment of Animals. She said many owners have struggled here and nationally

to keep pace with soaring feed costs and other related expenses, medical checkups and boarding fees.

Some have been forced to cut back, others to sell or give away their animals altogether. In some instances, horses are simply abandoned. Morris said she has a case involving owners who went riding in Bear Brook State park and returned to the parking lot to find unknown horses waiting in their trailer.

In March, a 92-year-old Pembroke resident voluntarily turned over nine horses to the police and the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after officials found them languishing inside a decrepit barn on his land.

“Most people really genuinely love their horses, but they just get in over their heads, and there aren’t that many options,” Morris said.

In Southwick’s case, the police and friends say he was hospitalized for most of the winter and had left day-to-day tasks in the hands of his caregiver, who owned two of the five horses rescued. The other three were allegedly abandoned at the farm by a previous boarder. The caregiver, Harold Kelley, told investigators he works a separate, full-time job and has had to care for his mother in recent months.

Friends of Southwick’s said he has been unable to afford repairs on the barn where the animals were found, which during a visit last week appeared to be falling in on itself. They have started a gofundme.com page in recent weeks to raise money for a replacement structure.

Kathy Lang of Canterbury, who founded Becky’s Gift, a nonprofit that helps struggling horse owners temporarily pay for feed and medical treatment, said there are a host of reasons why someone falls behind in their ability to care for the animals, including job loss, illness, divorce and unexpected veterinary costs.

Since the group was created in 2009, it has helped more than 400 horses and is increasingly inundated with new applications, especially during the winter when pastures freeze and hay prices can quadruple, Lang said.

Morris said a bale of hay runs about $8 in the summer months, and a typical smaller-scale owner might go through upward of two bales a day, depending on how much grazing land is available.

Horses also require regular medical checkups and cosmetic upkeep. Their hooves should be shaved at least once every couple of months, which averages about $50 per horse, Lang said. If it’s not done, as was the case in Northfield, the animal can become hobbled.

Lang said the requests her group receives come mostly from the Seacoast.

Steve Sprowl, manager of field services at NHSPCA, said his organization is often brought in to investigate cases involving possible neglect or animal cruelty.

“Ninety percent of the time it’s just education,” he said. “But people need to realize that under the cruelty laws, (the animals) need food, water, shelter and sustenance,” such as medical care.

Sprowl and Morris said towns are often reluctant to charge horse owners with neglect or intentional cruelty because they typically have to coordinate and pay for the care of the animals while a case moves forward. Restitution doesn’t always come through, they said.

Sprowl said other times, as in the Pembroke case earlier this year, charging someone who is frail or otherwise impaired is simply unpopular.

It’s unclear whether that played any factor in the Northfield case. Teresa Paradis, executive director of Live and Let Live Farm, the Chichester rescue center where the five horses are rehabilitating, said she knew of the poor conditions at 85 Zion Hill Road for years and had pressed the police before to investigate.

Paradis’s organization boards close to 70 horses and is one of the largest of its kind in New England. But she said the farm has been swamped with calls for help and is having a tough time keeping up.

“Adoptions have slowed down, donations are barely trickling in and we are getting more phone calls than ever for help,” she wrote in an email. “But we can’t help others without financial support from the public. We can’t get these horses their surgeries, which will cost in the thousands in the near future, without funds to pay for it.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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