Early last week I got a Facebook message from someone who works at Days End Farm Horse Rescue. Could I help identify some Chincoteague Ponies they'd seized? Of course, I would. But it wasn't until the next day that I made the connection.
The headline, "Rocky Ridge horse farm under investigation after neighbors' report animal neglect, starvation," came up on the page. I almost skipped over it because I am not good at handling stories of animal abuse. But, recalling the earlier message, my eyes dropped to the page and I began to read.
Nine of 12 ponies living on the Frederick county farm were seized and taken to Days End Horse Rescue in Woodbine. The rest — a mix of miniature horses and Chincoteague Ponies — were seized the next day. As I looked at the photo, I froze. I knew that pony, Trinket. Then it all came crashing in. I knew that pony owner and had for many years suspected much of what was now being alleged in the investigation.
I recalled the first time I'd met her and how she'd offered to haul a Feather Fund pony for us for only the cost of gas. I thought that made her a good person — but doing the occasional good deed does not make someone a good person. Good people do not let their animals starve.
This same horse owner had purchased a wild stallion from the island a decade ago. No one else wanted to bid on a crazy full-grown stud, so she did. A few months later, while writing a book about this hardy breed, I decided to contact her about the stud. I ended up going to visit and found a very thin stallion locked in a stall, away from all the other ponies.
"He knows he depends on me for feed, so he has become as gentle as a kitten," she told me.
At that time, the comment didn't hit me for what it really was. I took a photo for my book of her with the stud she'd named A Perfect Storm. I walked away just a bit nervous about the number of pounds he had dropped. I wasn't knowledgeable enough at the time to realize he was starving. The next time I saw her, she told me he'd died. "A heart aneurysm," she'd said.
A few years later, there was another young bay stud in the pens at Pony Penning that no one knew the history on. He'd earned the name Chaos because of the amount of trouble he was stirring up, trying to fight every other stallion in the pony pens. No one else raised their hand, so she purchased the stud. A year later, he was dead, too.
Over the years of seeing her at Pony Penning I learned of many, many more horses who had died under her care — A Perfect Storm, Island Kind, Sandpiper, and a gorgeous 8-year-old buckskin mare that I loved but never knew the name of. And there were more. I thought about talking to someone, but who would believe me without proof, and what if her horses really did pass of natural causes? Maybe she just had bad luck.
My mind was full of excuses to stay out of it. I thought about all the times the cowboys on Chincoteague Island are called out for a wild pony in peril, only to find out that "the big gash on his side" was just a clod of mud. Because of those who overreact, the cowboys think twice before going out to check. After all, they work full-time jobs all day, have families, and yardwork, church and school commitments and more. Stopping their lives to load up horses, trailer over to Assateague Island, unload and beat the bushes plus hordes of mosquitoes only to find a healthy horse can make a human slower to react. I didn't want to be one of those people.
I hadn't thought about this woman in a while, but then, in 2016, she purchased two fillies at the Pony Penning auction on Chincoteague. My heart did cartwheels as I watched her bid on Sweet Jane's beautiful chestnut pinto and Mayli Mist's first foal, a gorgeous palomino pinto. I wondered if I should speak up. Even though she'd lost a lot of horses over the years what could I prove? Would I seem like another one of those crazy people making a mountain out of a mole hill? I kept my mouth shut.
Now, seeing the condition of the ponies seized by Days End Farm Horse Rescue, I felt so much shame. I should have spoken up. I should have shouted it from the mountain tops.
As the week progressed, Days End began to post videos. One showed a crane lifting one of the staved horses, so frail that he could not stand on his own. I was told the 9-month-old Chincoteague Pony was doing poorly too, unable to get up without help after lying down. Staring at the photo I realized the pony was not 9 months old as the rescue had been told. This was Spirit, the 2016 filly out of Sweet Jane. I quickly messaged the worker at Days End to let her know that this pony would soon be 2 years old, not 9 months. That is the level of starvation.
I worried about Mayli Mist's palomino pinto filly. She wasn't among those who were seized. So, I posted photos online of her and another missing pony, a mare named Nibbles. I prayed the owner had sold them. Then I read this post online.
"I am the neighbor that tried to get these horses help for over a year. There are four dead [ponies] dumped over the hill in front of her house. One is bones, but I am pretty sure it was a white mini. Last Friday, I saw them take a white mini down the hill and [it is] still rotting in the weeds. I sent an email to [Animal Control] and was told they had been checked and they had hay and grain. I asked when, because I know they hadn't had hay since November, and no grass to graze on. I told them there were dead horses. I was told that was a health department problem."
The neighbor continued, writing that she and other neighbors had been reporting this horse owner for over a year, as they slowly watched horses starve and die. Finally, she'd seen enough and called the sheriff department. That spurred the seizure.
Reading her note, I sat and cried. If a 2-year-old mare was identified as a 9-month-old filly, one of the white "minis" could have been Hope — Mayli Mist's 2016 filly.
Here are the questions I have: Why did it take a year of chronic complaints and numerous dead bodies for these horses to be saved? Will the perpetrator be prosecuted? Will she be banned from ever owning another horse?
Because of this case, I've made some vows. I will never again sit in silence when I have suspicions. On this case, I'll write letter after letter, so those in charge know there's a pattern of young horses dying under her care. I'll make call after call until I know this case will be prosecuted. And I'll continue to search for the many missing horses we know were in her possession.
I'm praying my story will make you take action as well, stepping up and speaking out whenever you see or suspect abuse. Don't be the one who didn't, like me. Be the one who did and make a difference.
Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.