RIVERVIEW — Shawn Jayroe couldn't take too many steps before she was hugged, thanked or praised for her work with abused and neglected horses.
As she recently walked the grounds of RVR Horse Rescue to celebrate "Help a Horse" day, supporters whispered and shouted their support. Many said they are stunned the rescue is under investigation over the care of two horses.
Jeff Zanoni said animals at the facility receive "outstanding" care. He said two of the four horses he adopted had been at least 200 pounds underweight. At RVR, he said, they were nursed back to good health.
"I don't think they would have survived if they didn't come here," said Zanoni, a Lithia resident who also volunteers at RVR.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says an Arabian mare named Valentine and Flower, a Tennessee pinto mare, were found in poor condition during an April 2 visit to RVR, 12611 Hayes Clan Road.
The Sheriff's Office had donated the horses to the group in January after taking custody of them after an animal neglect hearing.
The Sheriff's Office said veterinarians agreed the horses were malnourished. In a petition, the Sheriff's Office said the rescue had not fed the horses enough and failed to follow veterinarian recommendations. Deputies seized the horses against the rescue's wishes.
Jayroe, who relies on volunteers, donations and proceeds from her job as a hairstylist to run RVR, was thrilled so many showed up to the event to support her and celebrate the cause of helping horses.
"I love what I do," she said. "I will hopefully die doing it."
She wouldn't address the allegations other than to say the horses had improved during the 65 days they stayed at RVR.
"I'm innocent," she said. "I'm totally innocent. The truth will come out."
Jayroe started rescuing horses in 2004. She formed a nonprofit group in 2011. About 140 horses received help at RVR, with about 80 finding new homes.
Carole Smith is one of RVR's biggest supporters. She has poured more than $200,000 into improvements at the rescue, including a new 30-stall barn. She backs Jayroe and RVR.
"We'll be exonerated," said Smith of Wimauma. "It's a hiccup. We are tireless. All we think about is the horse."
Smith and Kelly Ford of Valrico are two of about 60 volunteers who sent letters to media outlets praising RVR.
Ford worked with the two horses seized by deputies, but declined to discuss them. In general, Ford said, it takes time to heal an emaciated horse. It can be harmful to feed them too much too soon.
"You can't dump food on them," she said. "You will kill them."
Ford said the allegations "hurt." She said great work goes on at RVR, and that miracles happen there.
"I am proud of what we do," Ford said.
Karen Farmer of Valrico summed up RVR's good work by showing off her horse Rhett, whom she adopted from RVR. When he arrived, she said, he was little more than skin and bones. The rescue bulked up his body and his spirit.
"Look at him," she said. "He's fat. He's happy. He's healthy."
However, Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon said deputies took their action after consulting three veterinarians. He said the horses were weighed and measured.
McKinnon wants to be clear that his agency relied on the opinions of medical professionals.
"The horses weren't at the level they were supposed to be," he said. "They didn't gain the proper weight, according to the veterinarians."
Tampa attorney Robert Herce said RVR is fighting allegations that it did not properly care for Valentine and Flower. RVR also wants the animals returned.
"They should have never, ever seized these animals," he said. "They were getting the proper nutrition."
He added: "They were sick. They were emaciated. It takes a while to bring their weight up."
Herce will represent RVR in court May 9.
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]