Saddle sores. Protruding ribs. An untreated internal infection. • This was the condition of Diamond, a 30-year-old brown mare, when she arrived at RVR Horse Rescue in late June. • Found by Hillsborough County Sheriff's investigators at a boarding facility near Progress Village, no one would claim responsibility for the emaciated, pregnant horse. Unwanted, her wounds had been left to fester and her pregnancy had gone unchecked. • RVR, a not-for-profit horse rescue facility off Rhodine Road, was asked to take her in. • Veterinarians went to work immediately on Diamond's wounds and cared for her when her weakened body miscarried. She's now being rehabilitated for adoption. • It's a situation volunteers have become all too familiar with at RVR, which takes on only the worst cases of neglect and abuse.
The rescue is now housing 40 rescued and adopted horses.
And they expect the number to climb.
"Every time I turn around, there's a new one here," said Shawn Jayroe, the founder of RVR.
Cases of abandoned and neglected horses are on the rise across the state, said Ed Raburn, a sergeant in charge of Hillsborough County's agricultural crimes unit.
"It boils down to a bad economy," Raburn said.
As money gets tighter, more and more owners are forced to make a decision: feed their family or feed their horse.
It can cost hundreds of dollars to care for a horse each month. And for those who can't afford it, options are limited.
Traditionally, horse owners would take unwanted horses to auction, Raburn said. But, now, the cost to transport a horse to auction can outweigh its selling price.
"The problem is that so many people are in that situation that the livestock auction has become saturated," he said, "making it almost impossible to sell their horse for more than $50 or $100."
A federal ban on horse slaughter took away another option in 2006. Though a source of contention, slaughterhouses were buyers of old and unwanted horses. That ban has recently expired, but no new slaughterhouses have opened. Some reports estimate that as many as 140,000 horses from the United States still end up at slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico each year.
Even the high cost of euthanasia — about $300 — propels some owners to abandon injured horses, said Ericka Caslin, director of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, based in Washington D.C.
Rescue facilities like RVR take horses in, but each can only accommodate so many. Across the country, organizations are struggling to keep up, Caslin said.
"In a survey, we found many of our rescues are either at capacity or are very near capacity," Caslin said. "There are not a lot of places for these horses to go."
That's a worry that haunts Jayroe.
"If a horse is hurt, or it can't be ridden anymore, some people will just throw it away like a piece of trash," she said.
Jayroe, who started RVR nine years ago, works as a hairstylist to help fund her rescue. She relies on donations and a staff of volunteers to keep the rescue going.
Saying no, especially in dire cases, is hard.
"If the situation is bad enough and we don't have room," she said, "I'll put them in my bedroom."
In Hillsborough County, investigators receive 10 to 30 tips a week from people concerned about the welfare of a farm animal, Raburn said.
A few weeks ago, a call resulted in deputies arresting one of their own.
Pamela Belo, a 23-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office assigned to the Community Outreach Division, was charged with animal cruelty after two of her four miniature horses were found to have been deprived of food and nourishment for the past year.
All four were taken to RVR. One, Warrior, died a few days later. Suspended without pay, Belo resigned.
"It was horrible," Jayroe said about Warrior's condition. "How could this woman walk up her front stairs and cook dinner for herself after walking right by this poor animal? He was lying right by her door."
The story of Warrior's death has spread as far as New Zealand, Jayroe said.
She's not used to all the attention, she said, but hopes it will help bring awareness to the problem.
And it's a problem that needs to be addressed from the beginning of horse ownership, Caslin said.
"Know what goes into a horse before purchasing a horse," she said. "Know what your options are if you're ever in a situation in which you can't care for the horse."
If needed, Caslin suggests selling the horse, donating it to a school, or therapeutic riding club or police force. Offer them free to a good home or look into retirement facilities for older horses.
If horse owners are still unsure of their options, they should contact the Sheriff's Office, Raburn said.
"It's a crime if you abandon your animal — we prosecute people for doing that," he said. "If there is someone who is seeking help, though, we will try to help them."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.