Sunday, August 10, 2008

A tangled tale

We here in Alaska have our share of stories and storytellers-from the great Robert Service to Dana Stabenow, Peabody Prize winning reporters and on down to erstwhile bloggers such as myself. Blogs are wonderful tools. They can educate, alarm, reveal, and titillate. They can inflame passions, prompt reformations and yet, yet, most readers have no idea that a blog is nothing more than the authors opnion. It may be backed up by graphs, citations, charts and quotes, but whatever "idea' put forth into cyber space is just that: the opinions and conclusions of one person. As such, they are afforded some specific rights under law. Something to keep in mind when reading this entry.

Yes, it's horse related-and if the cast of characters and tale itself does not concern or amuse you-feel free to click on out to some other page.

Okay, that's the preface-now to the rather twisted tale of enterprise, ego and expectations.

There appeared on the horse scene a couple years ago, a man who seemed to be unknown-at least, unknown to those of us on the west side of the Valley. He made a bit of a splash with ads for boarding, and honestly the place looked just lovely. Lots of pasture, nice fencing-that sylvan fields impression. He joined a local horse group online, and seemed friendly and outgoing and genuinely interested in helping kids and horses out.

Now comes onto the scene, the plight of a local feed store. The hard working young couple that started it, were going to close down if someone didn't step in and operate it. An enterprising woman saw the opportunity and soon enough, she and her husband were up and running with new energy. Not being sure of the exact timeline, I can only say that some months passed and I noticed the above mentioned boarding stable operator hanging out at the feed store pretty regularly. More time passed and I noticed the husband was no longer there, and the woman and the stable owner were what can only be called an item. He tells several people he is a member of a particular Valley family, and thus the reason he has those wonderful, grassy acres to put horses on.

More time passed, and onto the local group the man posts about wanting free horses. And he posts to Craigslist for the same. He is asked questions about his motivation for doing so-but explains that he is just looking to put kids and horses together, to have fun, for 4-H, etc. It's been relayed to me that he acquired at least 7 horses in this manner-in addition to the horses he was boarding for others. Several months go by and there are reports of loose horses very near the stable-but he is very quick to deny they originated from there.

Later on (earlier this year) I get a phone call out of the blue from a young man needing boarding. I am happy to oblige and we make arrangements for the following weekend. During the week, he arrives to check on his two, and discovers them in very poor condition. For the fourth time, there is no water, no shelter available and no hay present. The winds are howling like they can only do in Palmer, and the horses are weak and very dehydrated. The young man calls me in a panic-can I take them today? (And of course I agree, it only takes a few minutes to shuffle horses around) Once loaded and on the road, he calls again, nearly in tears. His horses have marks all over them, they are extremely dehydrated, and the mare is having trouble staying on her feet. I suggest water first, then, stop at AC and sign out a complaint. Photos are taken of the wounds and marks, and the MSBACR officer condition scores the horses. Later I get a phone call from my husband when they me a heads up they are "very hungry". I tell him which hay to put out, and have several other conversations with the owner...........and I learn some very peculiar things.

When I arrive home, it's too cold to be taking blankets off of stressed out, weak horses. I run my hands under the blankets and my heart just drops. A condition score 2.5, and about a 3. We quickly confer with vet over the phone and I get them started on a recovery program right away. The next day it is made clear that the responding AC officer is indeed, "good buddies" with the stable owner as no action is taken-not even a warning. The owner is beyond upset, and even more nervous about leaving his horses with someone he does not know (that would be me, of course) I assure him his horses will be fine, and not to worry about his stuff either. I tell him that boarding is a meeting of expectations-he expects that I will take care of them, and I expect to get paid for it ;) Pretty simple, really.

Over the succeeding weeks, the horses recover, even as they show signs of abuse-scars, marks, head shyness, fear, defensiveness. But they were young, and rebounded fairly quickly with balanced nutrition and their other needs attended to in a timely fashion. The owner of the horses and the stable owner have it out over the phone, leaving it that the matter is dropped.

And there it would stay, if it were not for little bits and peices of rumors that continued to crop up from time to time. Missing tack, a horse trailer used without permission, horses ridden without approval, until one day......I get yet another contact, asking about boarding. Of course, I relate what I can offer, and learn that the boarding stable had shut down. I didn't think much of it at the time, other than the passing thought that a lot of horses got shuffled around.

The summer progressed, and the horses in my care just bloomed. Glossy, excellent weight, their personalities emerged from the frightened, spooky state they arrived in. I took extra pains to get the one horse past a new fear of hand implements-would actually bolt and then cower at the motion of a manure rake in hand, poor thing. Eventually the owner found new stabling arrangements more convenient to work and home, and they moved on. The owner was more than pleased with their condition, but called me less than a week later with a very serious question.........

......and the question raised so many other issues, that I began doing a little bit of digging.

It's amazing what you find when you start turning over rocks, really it is.

I began to get a better picture of the ego exhibited when further discussions take place regarding the boarding operation with those who either boarded there, or who knew someone who did. One of the stranger things was a "fee" charged to a new boarder, euphemistically called "herd introduction fee". Of the nearly 50 horses on the property, I am not sure how many people were forced to pay this extra fee for the priviledge of arrival there-but at a $150 per head....well, let's just say it was likely lucrative. For $500 a month for two horses, you got pasture and hay. If you wanted your horses to get any grain (or they needed it) it was a flat $80 per month, per horse. And COB was all that you could get. Most people expect some sort of shelter and water would be provided, but in actuality, the majority of the horses had only trees, and water was not available 24/7, Instead, it was "just being filled" or, "tank is frozen, it needs thawing first" or some such. Always an excuse, and horses were moved from paddocks and rotated through pastures fairly regularly. Several people arrived to find saddle marks on their horses-always explained away....light hearted, "it was kids" type of explanations.

In May, word came that the horses had been moved. All of them. Or, the story was, the place was "closing down" and you "must come get your horse right away". Whichever the real truth is, I don't know, but a bunch got moved to another location-without the knowledge of some owners and definitely without prior approval. A number of people are still owed refunds on boarding money paid in good faith. Others are just happy their skinny horses got moved to a place where food and water are not a worry. Quite a bit of tack is still missing too, some of which are specialty items not commonly found in local tack rooms.

Turning over yet more rocks, I learn that the boarding operator was not actually a relative of the local Valley family.
And, he had managed to procure goods and/or services under the alias of that last name.
And, he'd never had a business license either.
And neither does the feed store-under either name. The same one they advertise for sale too.

This is the same guy who trolls for customers on Craigslist, touting "quantity purchases" of grains in "bulk". This is the same guy that has a rather interesting history with the local court system. This is the same guy who scammed at least 7 free horses for his 4-H club, of which there are four members. This is the same guy who threatens anyone who asks questions, or who just flat refuses to answer. This is the same guy who brags he's "good buddies" with a well known MSBACR officer-and he can do as he likes with horses in his care. This is the same guy that never told any of his boarders that he was actually kicked off the original property. This is the same guy that joined the local horse group, then left it when people asked any questions of him.

Keep in mind that the boarding operation was going full swing as the feed store is in business also. Surely, he had access to more hay? Surely, he had the means to get more stock tanks, or hoses, or tank heaters? Surely, he did not need to use anyone elses' tack? Surely, he had the knowledge to manage so many horses?

But like many things within the horse world, trust is a fragile element. Just as you can break a horses' trust with an ill timed, unnecessary reprimand, so too, a person can cause their own "house of cards" to collapse easily enough-all it takes is threats.

In closing, please bear in mind that while on the surface this may appear to be a personal spat, the truth is, this effects ALL of us in the horse communuity here. Here you have a guy who should have had all the right resources to provide quality care for the horses in his stable. He has the feed store connection, he had the land, he started a 4-H club-all perfectly wonderful things in their own right. What he seemingly did not have was the expertise, the licensing, and the common sense to know he was going to eventually be caught out in falsehoods.

When asked simply for information, he came out with threats and/or denials. Since I was not privy to the conversations, I cannot relate what those might have been-but it serves as a warning to the rest of us: Know who you do business with, and ask for references. Do not rely upon a casual friends' recommendation, or the charisma of the person. Visit your horses frequently when boarded out. Don't be afraid to ask questions-and if you aren't happy with the answers-move your horses! They depend solely on your judgement, remember?


Lori said...


The1CowgirlsEnvy said...

Wow, I knew shit was bad but not that bad. I guess my mare was a super lucky one. She was fat, lost about 150 lbs during her 8 month stay at this said stable(which was the plan from the get go). Never saw saddle marks or had werid issues such a head shyness or anything like that...but hey I guess that it helps that her stall door was frozen shut and you couldn't pull her out anyway...grrr

suvalley said...

WHAT?? Your horse was essentially *trapped* inside a stall?

What if there was an emergency? What if there was a fire? What if she needed veterinary attention?

OMG! Sorry, I am just does that happen? Well, of course I know how it happens-run off, or snow blown in that is not removed...but still, wow. Just wow.

You are probably the only person I have heard about that was actually happy with weight loss ;)

mbd said...

I have followed these developments with interest, and I have one question (which we've discussed here before): WHERE WERE THE OWNERS OF THOSE HORSES?

Yes, we all have lives. Yes, crap happens and we can't be out at the barn every single day. Yes, boarding out has its risks.

But I have a responsibility to my horses to make damn sure they're being cared for properly. And MOVE them the second they're not.

So, do we hear from the owners? What's their side of the story?

The1CowgirlsEnvy said...

TJ, I always busted her stall door back open when I came out, but since the owner of the stable just threw her hay over the stall door I guess there really was no reason for him to ever open it...

Being as she is a retired mare, and I lived in Anchorage, I never went out there to often except for maybe 2-3 times a month. Just to see how she was doing, and give her a scratch on the neck.

As far as mbd's comment. I'll admit, I honestly didn't see a problem, with my horse. My horse never showed any head shyness or saddle marks and as I said before she did loose about 150lbs in roughly 8 months, but I wanted her to loose about 200-250 lbs. She's your typical halter horse with huge body mass and tiny feet, and the worlds easiest keep. She has navicular syndrome and so we wanted all that extra weight off of her. She was pushing 1400 lbs when I'd have liked to see her around 1150 to 1200.

The only problem I ever had was that her stall door was frozen shut every time I came out there and has to use an ice pick and sledge hammer to open it up! I never looked at the horses in the pasture, I tried to count horses one time but since most of them were in the far back pasture I couldn't get a accurate count, and since my horse was kept in the barn I never bothered to wander back there.

The only time I had a problem was when I got a call from a gal I'd never met stating that the owner of the business had been kicked off the property and I had to come get my horse ASAP.

So I go get my horse and the owner of the business has yet to reimburse me for the board money I am owed.

suvalley said...

OK, so....if the door was frozen shut, and she was inside the stall as you describe...did it not get cleaned?

Eeks, two weeks of frozen poo? Just standing on it? Poor thing, not goot for feet already compromised :(

Not surprised to learn he owes you board money-pretty sure there are others in the same situation. I wish there was some way that I could connect you all, but I can't think of one-especially when everybody wants this all to stay hush-hush, you know :(

mbd said...

the1cowgirlsenvy: it sounds like your mare did better than others. I'm glad for your sake. I do understand; I have one I'm working on taking pounds off of :)

But, to these people who talk about finding saddle marks, horses losing condition, fear issues developing -- all I can say is, WTF? WHY would your horse stay there one more second than necessary?

One incident I might write off, because stuff does happen. More than one, however, should be a red flag to get your horse out of there, and until you can, check on them every single day.

Sorry. This is a sore spot with me. I have been both boarder and boardee, and I just can't fathom letting something like that slide.

To those of you who lost money, I'm very sorry and suspect you'll never see a dime of it. On the other hand, be glad your horses are away from there.

suvalley said...

I'll just offer a few things in defense of some of the owners. Whether they are accurate or not in this case, I don't know....

But, first you have to remember this is winter/spring in Alaska. For a person working a typical weekday type job, its dark when you get up and leave the house, and dark when you get home.

Most folks will only see their horses on the weekends-weather permitting. Most will trust the BO to take decent care of their horses, and not stress too much if they don't get out every single day-or every couple of weeks if there are no indoor riding facilities.

Or perhaps the condiitons are really bad and it's risky to drive (we've had plenty of that too, last winter) and if they did come-one heckuva lot of ice to deal with. Couple that with horses that are scattered in large pastures with drifting snows and some pretty hefty winds.....

Some of them lived 50 miles away in Anchorage to boot-it can become a bit of an outing to just get there, trust me. Most will call to check up (I would think) and just take the BO's word for it that everything is fine.

This is how it happens that horses loose dramatic weight (or actually die) when boarded out up here. I know when I boarded out, it is hard to get motivated to do horse things when it's -20 and blowing the same. I have, and did, trust the BO to take care-and I was fortunate-good, knowledgeable folks.

These others were not so lucky. As an example, I have had horses here whose owners did not come to see them for months-but, we kept in regular contact via email or phone and each boarder knows they are welcome *at any time* to come out.

Again, it's the conpetency of the BO that is going to be put to the test here-and horse owners should not just presume a line of BS equals experienced, considerate care.

On that, I agree with you-the owners bear some culpability too.

mbd said...

TJ --- I've lived here a long time, and I understand everything you're saying about owners who don't / can't get out to check on their horses. Believe me, at -30, mine get the 10-second lookover (with flashlight!) and I call it good. And yes, I miss things but not for long.

I guess what bothers me is owners trusting BOs so completely. Not to sound distrustful, but it's MY HORSE and I'M the one responsible in the end. I can't quite come to grips with giving up that responsibility to the extent that a horse ends up with a condition score of 2.5.

That does not happen overnight. It's rare it happens even in a month, although possible in the winter with a horse that maybe had some other underlying health issues.

So, while the stable manager (or whatever we can call him) certainly bears the brunt of the responsibility, I still am wondering where the owners were.

I had a retired show mare boarded at my parents' place Outside for several years. I bugged the crap out of them regularly about her, scheduled her vet and farrier visits myself, and wanted pictures. And my father was a cowboy and excellent horseman in his own right. He always laughed at me, then answered all my questions because he knew how much I cared.

suvalley said...

mbd, you have nailed my biggest concern on the head.

Look what happened to Wingnut! Impounded from a boarding facility about as close to dead as they get without being down (CS 1) and a 1.5 when she arrived here April 1st.

WHAT are people thinking when they just drop off their "beloved" horse into the care of someone else, and don't check on them??

I remember hearing about the BO (subject of the topic here) just crowing that he'd "taken" boarders away from another place.

Oh. My. Word. What a bunch of crap-and I sure hope to heck those horse(s) got moved back!

In the winter, I have lights on 24/7 (low enough wattage not to interfere with coat of course) and with those and a flashlight, I too, check the horses pretty well every evening. Yes of course they get fed in the mornings too, but depending on weather, I will check half at breakfast and the other half at dinner. Although I have to say that if its blowing 30 mph and the horses are blanketed, I do NOT take off the blanket to check them. I do take off my gloves tho, and check for hydration and general body score. Overall inspections have to wait for really good daylight....or, I get my hub to do it when he's home ;)

Of course, it's time consuming, and it's a pain, but its part of the routine in the winter-like a warm mash, lots and lots of hay, late night snacks and checks, and treats and pats-no matter what the weather is doing. We get to escape into comfort, while they must just endure.

It is something I do not forget.