Barely getting by

Brian Chilson, an investigator from the SPCA of Texas, videotapes horses on a small ranch near Era Aug. 23. Chilson said the horses were malnourished and were living in substandard conditions. The horses were seized by the sheriff’s department and given to the SPCA’s McKinney clinic.

VALLEY VIEW — The drought has placed many local residents out of the ranching business voluntarily, facing scorched forage, dry stock ponds and a lack of quality hay.

On Wednesday, one Cooke County rancher was taken out of horse ranching by a judge’s order.

Following a rare public hearing at the Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace office in downtown Valley View, Judge John Roane ordered five of seven horses be given to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) of Texas, and the other two to be returned to their proper owners.

“I’m taking you out of the horse business,” Roane said, summarizing his ruling to the respondent, Ernest Simpson, who operates the small ranch where the horses were seized.

One week ago on Aug. 23 seven horses were seized from Simpson’s ranch near Era by the Cooke County Sheriff’s Department following a complaint to the SPCA filed by several neighbors.

Carol Tanner, Simpson’s fiancé and owner of the property since 2003, did not speak as a witness and accompanied Simpson at the hearing.

The horses, according to an SPCA report, were malnourished and neglected. The hearing this Wednesday revealed a similar scene, following testimony from SPCA investigators and sheriff’s department officers.

An often interrupting but apologetic Simpson thanked Roane for his order following the hearing.

“The way I’ve been feeling lately, I’m thankful, in a round about way,” he said.

Simpson experienced breathing difficulties during the hearing, which he said is from a recent flare up of Malaria that he originally contracted during service in the Vietnam War. He also noted he was exposed to Agent Orange.

“I didn’t do it for you, I did it for the horses,” Roane said.

Simpson replied that he loves his horses, and that’s why he kept them despite a very low local hay and water supply on his property.

Nancy Carlton, assistant county attorney, represented the state of Texas during the hearing. She said the evidence affected her emotionally, at times having to take deep breaths to ask questions about the photos of the thin horses.

Carlton presented several witnesses, including Simpson’s neighbor Stephanie Beard.

Beard said she saw the horses for about a year and noticed a gradual change in physical appearance.

“You could see every bone in their bodies,” she said.

She noted two horses had died on or near the property over the year — one following a collision with a vehicle on County Road 336 when it got lose and another that was laying dead in the yard for two days for unknown reasons.

She said she never saw a lot of hay on the property, for her vantage point. She said water troughs were usually upside-down and the pond was low.

“I try not to be that nosey of a neighbor. I just take notice when animals get really skinny,” she said.

Answering questions from Simpson, Beard said she could not see behind Simpson’s barn. Simpson said the horse that got loose was a hard-to-control Stallion that broke its chain and got over a damaged portion of the fence.

Melanie Beard, who has lived at her current location on CR 336 for 20 years, said she does not know Simpson but also noticed symptoms of possible neglect. Melanie Beard said she called the SPCA. Though she herself has never raised horses, she said by comparing the horses to others nearby it was easy to discern a difference.

Martha Morris, also a neighbor of Simpson’s, said she would occasionally see a round bale but there were “periods of nothing” on the property.

She said she called the Cooke County Sheriff’s Department and the SPCA.

“No horse should have to live under those conditions,” she said.

She described a horse which was caught in the “top square” of a fence, attempting to balance over the top to eat the green grass in a nearby bar ditch.

She said Simpson was not thankful when informed of the situation.

Morris said she noticed the hay was older and not the proper, greener coastal hay normally consumed by quarter horses.

“You have to give them good quality grain if you’re going to feed them old hay,” she said.

Deputy Laren Hudson, Cooke County environmental officer, said he has heard complaints on the property for two years and was notified by the SPCA of a severe problem on Aug. 22.

Hudson described the conditions of the horses as “about as poor as I’ve ever seen, other than dead.”

Carlton showed Simpson and Hudson the same set of photos of an foal with ribs noticeably protruding from its sides. Simpson and Hudson said that was a horse on the property.

Hudson said a Bay Mare and a stud colt on the property did not look bad, but they were recent arrivals.

Hudson said a four-month-old filly — which Simpson said difficult to control — had a halter imbedded in part of its face, as the skin started to grow around it. Simpson said he applied wound cream to the area.

Toby Beane, field deputy of the Cooke County Sheriff’s Department, said he was called to the property last year, and has made seven visits to the property. He said in one instance, he noticed the horses kicking buckets around looking for food. He said the pond water was nearly inaccessible. Simpson said he had built a ramp into the pond.

Roque Estrada, an investigator of the SPCA, said he had conversed with Simpson’s hired hand, Guy Halverson, on May 3. Estrada described a similar scene of malnourished horses.

Simpson said a dark-colored mare was a “rescue case” and was brought to the property to die.

“Is starvation a peaceful way to die?” Carlton responded.

Simpson asked how a horse with bad teeth and possibly tape worms could be made fat again.

Estrada said calling a veterinarian may have been a start.

Brian Chilson, also an investigator with the SPCA, said a discussion with the hired hand indicated that “sweet feed” was being used as the coastal hay is hard to come by.

Later testimony indicated sweet hay, mixed with molasses, does not nourish a horse. Simpson said he was looking for hay in Kansas, and that local supplies were up to $120 per bale in some cases. Simpson said he is on Veterans Administration benefits and could not afford local hay.

Chilson said the young filly with the halter embedded in her skin must have had the halter on for months for it to go that deep.

“You don’t have to be a horse expert,” Chilson said. “Common sense says there is something wrong with that.”

Chilson added it took five people to hold the filly down to remove the halter. The horse is now making a recovery and the infection from the wound is healing.

Ann Barnes, vice president of the SPCA of Texas, presented animal examination forms on each animal, and rated them using the “Heineke Scale,” which rates the horses from 1 (worst condition) to 9 (perfectly healthy).

Most were in the 1-3 range, with the exception of the Bay Mare and an brown and white stud. One black and white mare was 300 lbs. underweight and was missing muscle.

“There’s absolutely no other explanation that I could accept,” Barnes said, regarding the filly with the embedded halter.

Around noon the state ended its testimony and Simpson gave a brief statement.

Simpson said he has raised horses for 54 years, and specializes in “lawn ornaments” — horses not used for sport or ranch utility but just for pleasure.

He explained many of the horses came to him with problems, and to make matters worse “it hasn’t rained much all summer” on his 20 acres of rangeland. However, he said, he managed to feed each horse 50 lbs. of sweet feed per week.

“I didn’t realize the law said you can’t let a horse get skinny, either,” he said.

Regarding the filly, Simpson said he would’ve had a difficult time removing the halter.

“Yeah, we messed up on the filly. But I’m sorry. Life is not fair,” he said.

In cross-examination, Carlton asked what his hired hand’s duties were, and Simpson said it was to feed the horses in the morning and evening. Carlton asked whose job it was to look after the horse’s physical condition.

“I don’t know if we ever delegated that authority,” Simpson said. “... Had one of them come up limping, I would’ve noticed that. But if one got bit, probably not.”

Increasing his volume while speaking, he called the hearing “silly” and an “interrogation.”

Roane interjected, “This is not a silly hearing. I’m getting very impatient, and I’m about ready to make a judgment right now.”

Roane, in addition to awarding five of the horses to the SPCA, ordered Simpson to pay the group $560 to reimburse them for bringing the seven horses back to health.

The owner of the Bay Mare and the stud colt may claim the horses from the SPCA pending proper identification documents.

Roane, himself a cattle rancher, offered some advice to Simpson, advising him to purchase hay earlier in the year and not in July.

He said sweet feed in 105-degree-plus weather has no nutritional value and may lead to colic.

Roane advised Hudson and Beane to watch the property and make sure cattle there are kept fed and properly cared for.

The judge said there is no option for appeal.

Reporter Andy Hogue may be contacted at andyhoguegdr[at]ntin.net