Hawley rescue pledges to do better after horse's death prompts outcry
HAWLEY, Minn. -- A horse named Lightning was big and strong when she arrived at a horse rescue in Hawley this year.
A family donated her to the Hightail Horse Ranch and Rescue to be used as a fundraiser horse, meaning the rescue could sell her for a good price and use the money to help other horses.
But Lightning's condition deteriorated in a matter of months of living at the rescue. When she was removed from the rescue in September and arrived on Ann Kramer's property near Alexandria, Kramer was stunned.
"I cried," Kramer said. "I had never seen a horse in this condition. It still bothers me."
Despite Kramer's best efforts, Lightning, an 18-year-old American Paint Horse, died eight days later on Sept. 20. The horse's demise, some former Hightail volunteers say, is only one example of the poor care given to horses at Hightail.
Among the problems cited by former volunteers:
- Dominant horses are allowed to bully others, preventing some from accessing food and water.
-Horses do not receive the veterinary care they need.
-Horses suffer from worms.
- A manure pit poses a danger to horses.
-The rescue's executive director, Charlotte Tuhy, does not take action when problems are brought to her attention.
In a statement this week, Tuhy admitted the rescue deserved blame for the poor health of Lightning and another horse, Zia.
"We are absolutely at fault for not acting more aggressively in their care," Tuhy wrote. "This is the primary problem in this case, and the first one we are working to address."
While admitting to some issues, Tuhy in an interview this week dismissed many of the claims about animal neglect and her management style.
"It is a personal vendetta," she said of the campaign by some former volunteers to draw attention to the rescue's treatment of horses. She declined to specify why volunteers would target her, saying, "I do not want to lower myself to their standards."
Tuhy said all horses are able to access water and her horses are not unusually thin. She also blamed the rescue's board of directors for being unhelpful in recent months.
She denied an allegation that she would scream at volunteers. "I've dismissed volunteers who scream and yell," she said.
Tuhy, who founded the rescue about eight years ago, said she was motivated by her love of animals. "At the time I started this, there was no place for horses that were in trouble," she said. She said she wanted to "make life better for horses" on the 43-acre operation, which she said has 39 horses available for adoption.
But Tuhy admitted the rescue had some recent failings. She said she wished she had hired a vet to examine Lightning before the horse, a skinny shadow of her former self, died from what a volunteer said was complications from starvation.
In another incident that upset some volunteers, two horses became trapped in a manure pit this spring.
Emily Grier, a former Hightail volunteer and board member who quit this summer over complaints she had with the treatment of horses, said one of the trapped horses was in so deep "you could just see his nose."
"It was insane," said Grier, of Lake Park. "We did not think that either of those horses would make it."
Tuhy said the rescue was in the process of draining the pit. But Angela Erickson of Hawley, another former volunteer and board member, said Tuhy was known for ignoring concerns about the horses' safety.
Erickson said the manure pit incident -- which she called "horrifying" -- was not as egregious as the treatment of Lightning, a trick horse donated to the rescue in early May.
Hightail began using Lightning as a lesson and trail horse and placed her in a pasture where she was bullied by other horses, Erickson said. "By June, she was already in such bad shape that I was asking even her owner to come get her," but the owner had already signed surrendering papers, she said.
Meanwhile, according to Erickson, Tuhy said Lightning was "fine."
"We were instructed to keep using her and using her and using her," Erickson said of Lightning. She was finally able to get the horse out of the rescue and onto the property of her mother, Ann Kramer, in September.
A vet, Kathleen Jost, came to Kramer's property on Sept. 14 to look at Lightning. According to the doctor's notes, the horse "was emaciated. Ribs, tail head, vertebrae and spine ... was visible."
The horse was covered in bite marks, old scars; she made clicking and creaking sounds as she walked; she was likely infested with parasites.
"I am concerned with the rapid decline in this mare over 4 months," Jost wrote in her report.
After hearing Jost's evaluation, Erickson said she was horrified: "I knew she was bad and I was scared for her. Her back legs were all swollen ... she clicked just horribly."
"I was very afraid for her but I still had hope," Erickson said, breaking into tears.
Erickson, Grier and four others gave statements to the Minnesota Animal Humane Society, which turned over the information to the Clay County Sheriff's Office in early October.
Investigator Gabe Tweten said the testimonies showed "a lot of concern over the lack of veterinary care the volunteers feel the horses receive."
Tweten and two veterinarians toured Hightail. Tweten found nothing criminal and said it did not appear that the rescue intended to take bad care of the animals. However, he wrote, "I do believe many of the concerns brought up by the volunteers are very legitimate."
Erickson, who is now taking care of Zia, another horse she said was neglected at the rescue, said she was skeptical of the investigation's results.
"They didn't find anything criminal because Lightning was already dead, Zia was already gone and all the horses in jeopardy were already hidden," she said.
Tuhy said the complaints would lead to improvements at Hightail.
"When we have an opportunity to learn and grow, that's always a good thing," she said.