By Jesse Wood
March 12, 2013. On Tuesday afternoon, Horse Helpers of the High Country, a nonprofit equine rescue organization, held a press conference at a Boone hotel for a presentation describing what it called a history of “inhumane treatment” of the trail horses at Dutch Creek Trails.
The press conference comes nearly a week after a Watauga County Animal Care & Control officer and a veterinarian responded to a call about a 20-year-old horse down at the Dutch Creek Trails pasture off of Rubin Walker Road.
Ward was out of town when the veterinarian and Animal Control visited Dutch Creek Trails last week, but the veterinarian contacted Ward on the phone at the time and the two decided to euthanize the animal, according to Anita Gomez, chief animal control officer with the county. Several days later, Ward was cited with a $50 fine for failing to provide veterinarian care prior to horse going down.
“I debated on putting that horse down before I left town for five days. I thought I would give it another week,” Ward said. “In all fairness to Animal Control, I should have put down that horse a week earlier. I’ll just tell you – it’s a hard thing to put a horse down. It’s hard to shot a horse. I just wanted to give it another chance.”
At the press conference, Horse Helpers of the High Country President Amy Hudnall and Heather Hodges, a former employee of Dutch Creek Trails and a neighbor bordering the horse pasture, spoke.
Hudnall showed photos of horses that had “open, oozing sores” from saddle wear; one horse that had a untended horse-bite wound; another malnourished-looking horse that had a “spine you could rest a cup on;” and a horse that had rain rot. She showed pictures of horses that were feeble looking at Dutch Creek Trails, but looked rather healthy once removed from the keep of Ward for a significant amount of time.
“This would be considered torture in every state I know of,” Hudnall said, adding that Ward overworks his trail horses and disposes of them like “trash.”
Hodges and Hudnall mentioned that witnesses recently saw Ward horse swapping – exchanging skinny horses for fatter horses – with someone from Statesville, alluding to a cover up.
Hodges said that over the years, “many-a-many horses have died,” and she also accused Ward of having four horses die this winter from malnutrition and burying them behind a barn.
Ward denied those accusations. As for the horses being swapped, he mentioned, for example, that one of the horses was a 2 year old that he didn’t have time to break this spring.
“I wasn’t trading skinny horses for fat horses,” Ward said.
He did admit, though, that he has had two horses – but not four – die this winter.
“One was in great shape right up until the day she died,” Ward said, adding that he had only had the Appaloosa that was euthanized last week for only four months and that the old horse was packaged in a deal with a younger horse perfect for trail riding.
Hudnall said she had a 200-page report with nearly 1,000 photographs and personal testimonies from those who have said they have witnessed wrongdoings at Dutch Creek Trails. One anonymous statement noted that the quality of care for the horses declined as the economy started going downhill.
Ward disputed this by referring to his feed bill and mentioning – and not exactly in these words – that he wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds him.
“That would be just stupid. First of all, my main reason I have this business – I am a people person and I love horses and this is the best way to put those things I dearly love together. It’s a sparse living, but I enjoy it everyday,” Ward said. “Like any other person that has tools of the trade. Horses are my living. I have to keep them in good shape. Horses aren’t cheap.”
Aside from the issue of the horses, it sounds like personal issues have risen. Hudnall spoke about a “heated exchange” between a long-time employee of Dutch Creek Trails when asked by a reporter about a prior altercation involving friends and family of Dutch Creek Trails and Ward mentioned that Hodges had a “personal vendetta” against him.
Hodges said that she doesn’t have a vendetta against Ward.
“I don’t hate him,” Hodges said. “I despise what he does.
Hudnall noted that Horse Helpers of the High Country has been investigating Dutch Creek Trails since 2006 and made complaints to the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office in 2010, when Ward turned over two horses – aged 25 and 30, according to Gomez – to the care of Horse Helpers of the High Country.
A recent release from the horse-rescue group mentioned that of the “25 known horses at Dutch Creek Trails [currently] … at least 11 are in very poor condition.”
Hudnall noted that she has brought this matter to the District Attorney’s Office and to the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office – to no avail, aside from the recent $50 citation.
“I applaud them, but this should have happened years ago,” Hudnall said. “How long as a county can we allow this to continue? Being silent is content, and we can’t do that … Nobody is willing to move forward. This needs to be a full-blown investigation.”
Gomez of Watauga County Animal Control said she isn’t quite sure what Horse Helpers of the High Country wants authorities to do. She said her office responded to the call; oversaw the humane euthanization of the downed horse; issued a citation; and witnessed that no other horses appeared to be neglected.
“What are they asking us to do? To remove the healthy animals and ruin his business and county taxpayers foot the bill while we run this through the courts, and I don’t even know on what basis we could do that. And the cost of upkeep and hope nothing happens to those horses while in the county’s care,” Gomez said, emphasizing that the horse recently put down was 20 years old.
Nearly a decade ago, Gomez actually helped establish – with the help of a few others – Horse Helpers of the High Country, but she shortly realized the conflict of interest between her post as an animal control officer and with the horse rescue group.
Gomez said it’s not uncommon for those that have animals to receive phone calls from other people who feel those people with animals are not caring for them properly. She added that her office has even received calls about animals under the care of Horse Helpers of the High Country.
“Anytime you have a facility with more than a couple animals, a rescue group, horse trail riding, a farm-type of situation, boarding situation, breeding situation, you are going to have people calling you, people who may disagree with the way an animal is being kept that may not be up to their standards,” Gomez said.
Three weeks prior to the Appaloosa being recently euthanized, Gomez said that her office responded to Dutch Creek Trails after a complaint regarding the condition of three specific horses. She said the three horses were three of the largest, fattest horses on the property.
“They were great, wonderful looking horses,” Gomez said, adding that she did not see any malnourished or neglected horses.
As for her opinion on whether Ward is a cruel animal abuser or not, Gomez said, “I’ve never seen Keith be mean or mistreat his horses. Yeah, he has had horses die out there, but that is because he keeps them until they die instead of taking them out to slaughter.”
Gomez also mentioned that Ward is running a business and that working animals are different from pets and that Ward would go broke if he spent “$1,000 on alfalfa slushies” for his aging horses.
But she added though, “I am neutral. I have a job to do and that is to make sure that there is not malicious, intent cruelty. Do I think there is malicious cruelty? No. I do not.”
Gomez noted that it is Animal Control’s jurisdiction if a misdemeanor has been committed, however if a felony is being charged, then it moves to the hands of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office.
She also said that if Animal Control finds a problem during a welfare investigation, it is protocol for her office to work with the owner of the animal to educate them and try to help find solutions to better the conditions for the animals – as long as no malicious intent was involved.
Photos from Horse Helpers of the High Country