BROOKSVILLE — For Kathi Ruebeling, the dismal economy has taken a heavy professional and personal toll.
A real estate agent, she has seen her income drop, leading her to move from a 10-acre farm near Dade City to a smaller parcel outside of Brooksville.
What's breaking her heart, however, is having to give away some four-legged family members whom she can no longer afford to keep. In recent weeks, she has had to find new homes for three miniature horses, a pony and a goat.
"Except for putting down a horse, it is one of the hardest things I've ever done," she said.
Ruebeling, 54, is part of a growing number of horse owners in the Tampa Bay area who are being forced by financial pressures to give up their steeds.
"If you have trouble feeding yourself, feeding a horse is not on your priority list," said Truman Prevatt, president of Florida Back Country Horsemen, based in Brooksville.
A horse can cost at least $1,500 a year to keep, depending on where it is boarded, and services such as veterinarian and breaking and training.
For some owners, Prevatt said, the answer has been to simply let their horses run away into places such as the Cross Florida Greenway, not far from the major horse-breeding areas of Marion County.
Morgan Silver, who heads the Horse Protection Association of Florida based in Micanopy, Alachua County, said her organization has heard similar rumors of horses being turned loose in the Ocala National Forest.
While she said she had not confirmed such stories, she knows that her group gets calls almost every day from owners who must give up their horses.
At the Hernando County Animal Services, the story is much the same.
"We've had e-mails (from owners) looking for homes for their horses," said manager Liana Teague, recalling a report of two horses that someone just abandoned in an area pasture.
Animal Services does not accept horses, but directs calls to other resources.
"It's bad, it's very bad," said Debra McPherson, owner of Casey's Place Animal Sanctuary Inc., a 20-acre horse rescue farm near Brooksville that serves Hernando and Pasco counties. "The calls are just escalating,'' she said. "We are overwhelmed. We're getting maybe five horses a week."
"Fortunately, we've been able to take every horse,'' McPherson said, noting that Casey's Place can handle 10 horses at a time. "We've been able to keep our head above water."
But at the Horse Protection Association, which can lodge up to 70 horses, Silver said, "We cannot take them all. We will network with (owners) to get (their horses) homes."
The association recently took in 35 malnourished horses from a breeder who could no longer afford to feed them. That boosted to 125 the number of horses under the association's care, meaning some had to be farmed out to other properties for foster care, Silver said.
And it is tough financially on the rescue groups. Silver's association assesses an adoption fee of $75 to help cover the cost of feeding and animal maintenance, while Casey's Place asks for donations. Both groups rely on unpaid volunteers for labor.
The rescue organizations say they take pains to place their charges in good homes. McPherson and her volunteers interview prospective adopters, inspect their facilities and require references.
"A lot of people would take a horse and then flip them for $50 at an auction," she said. "Now, we have a contract."
Silver questions the knowledge, abilities and experiences of those who want to adopt. The thoroughbreds that come to the association are mostly untrained, sometimes not even broken to ride. "They're like wild animals," she said.
In Hillsborough County, which has Florida's second-largest horse population, a special unit in the Sheriff's Office handles abandoned and malnourished large animals at an 11-acre farm with pole sheds, pens and pastures at the department's training facility.
"We've had a couple of horses abandoned, turned loose, in the last few months,'' Cpl. Bruce Harrell said. "We've never had that before, so I guess you could say it's an increase."
He added, "We have a lot of people who will call us, and we refer them," primarily to the Horse Protection Association of Florida. "But most of the rescue organizations are full," he said.
Relinquished steeds have been donated to the Florida Sheriffs Boys and Girls Ranches at Live Oak and Bartow. When an unclaimed horse can't be placed, staffers care for the animal until it is healthy and passes veterinary tests. It is then offered for sale at J&M Horse Auction in Polk County.
"We've maybe taken five to auction," Harrell said.
Ruebeling, the Hernando real estate agent, is trying to hang onto the rest of her livestock. Two large horses and one miniature horse, as many as she believes the smaller acreage will support, are moving with her to the 3-acre parcel near Brooksville.
Like many owners looking for new homes for her critters, Ruebeling pressed those who responded to her offer to determine their level of knowledge about the animals.
In the end, the miniature horses went as companions for older, full-sized horses in Zephyrhills, Dade City and Brooksville.
The pony and goat are so bonded, Ruebeling wanted to keep them together if possible. They are now with a family in Lakeland.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.