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Charlotte Tuhy is the former owner of the Hightail Horse Ranch and Rescue northeast of Hawley that will be closing this month. Forum file photo.

Hawley, Minn., horse rescue operation to close after 'negative publicity'

HAWLEY, Minn. — A Hawley horse rescue operation will close this month because of "overwhelming negative publicity," its management said.

Management at Hightail Horse Ranch and Rescue said bad press drove away the volunteers and supporters it needs to survive.

The Forum and local television news recently carried stories detailing allegations by former volunteers who said horses received poor care. Charlotte Tuhy, the rescue's executive director and founder, resigned in November shortly after the allegations surfaced.

The allegations triggered an investigation by the Clay County Sheriff's Office, which found the rescue was doing nothing illegal. But the sheriff's investigator also found that "many of the concerns brought up by volunteers are very legitimate."

Tuhy opened Hightail Horse Ranch and Rescue with her husband, Joel Hildebrandt, in December 2010. The ranch offers boarding and other equine services. The rescue, which sits on land owned by Tuhy, is a registered nonprofit with a board of directors.

When Tuhy resigned from the rescue, the board said in a statement it would find a new executive director and find a "property the rescue can own and operate independently from any private land."

The rescue's management said in a statement Sunday: "We were truly hoping to move to a different location and continue to attempt to move forward, but the overwhelming negative publicity makes it impossible for an organization that depends on donations and volunteer assistance to survive."

More allegations emerged this month in a lawsuit filed by a woman who wanted the return of three horses she owned that were boarded at Hightail.

Jeanne Schindler of Bath, S.D., sued Tuhy in March because Hightail charged her for services, one of them being a "home remedy," that were never agreed upon, and refused to release the horses.

Tuhy's attorney, Timothy Shields, said Schindler and her husband "simply weren't paying the fee" and owed between $8,000 and $10,000.

He said the case was a simple contract dispute. But it became a vehicle for new complaints against Hightail this month when two former Hightail rescue board members offered sworn statements detailing allegations of improper care.

"Affidavits related to the quality of care have nothing to do with this case," Shields said, adding, "an unchallenged affidavit isn't evidence."

Amber Ferris sat on the board of Hightail Horse Ranch and Rescue from 2012 to October 2015, and served for a few months as board president.

She signed an affidavit claiming that she watched Schindler's two horses, Dusty and Gypsy, deteriorate after arriving at Hightail in May 2014.

Ferris's affidavit said the two horses "declined significantly" and "both suffered injuries including a severe eye injury and an infected tail abscess."

Dusty gave birth in May 2015 to a foal who was "in dire condition" and given goat's milk by Tuhy, even though goat's milk was "not enough for a foal," Ferris wrote. The next month, Ferris took a picture of the foal "demonstrating severe emaciation and starvation."

In summer 2015, according to Ferris, "Gypsy was placed on the road ditch where there was no feed, water or shelter. Tuhy directed us to not give her hay."

Tuhy also told staff not to publicly discuss the foal, according to Ferris.

More allegations are contained in a second affidavit signed by Angela Erickson, a former Hightail volunteer and board member who has been highly critical of Tuhy and her operation.

Erickson's affidavit states: "Dusty has been deprived of food, water and shelter, just as other horses, while in the custody of Hightail Horse Ranch and Rescue."

"Gypsy," Erickson wrote, "lost substantial weight and became a mere skeleton of when I first saw her."

Erickson and Ferris concluded their affidavits by writing that the horses were not likely to survive much longer if left in Tuhy's care.

Tuhy denied Monday that the horses were in bad shape. "I don't agree with that, as a general statement. I know that one of them has a respiratory condition that we've been doctoring."

"The horses were in as good as health as I could manage with the lack of care their owners would provide," she added. "I did as best as I could with what I dared do for them. It's like obtaining medical care for somebody else's kids, what do you do and what do you not do? And when you're dealing with people that have a history of lawsuits, it's really scary.

"It was a lose-lose situation for me," Tuhy said. "All I wanted was for them to pay their billing, take their horses, a long time ago."

On Jan. 8, two days after the affidavits were filed, Judge Galen Vaa in Clay County District Court ordered the horses to be released on $3,000 bond pending the outcome of the case. The horses were released the next day and taken to a veterinarian.

Erickson, who went with a group to pick up the horses, said they looked "very, very thin.

"The mares were having a hard time breathing, especially Dusty; you could hear her gasping and wheezing. Even the baby was coughing."

Tuhy said of the criticism against her operation: "You're going to find out it's a personal vendetta. It has everything to do with somebody deciding they have a personal axe to grind."

She said the rescue's closure is disappointing.

"There's a big need for equine rescue programs and there isn't anybody on this side of the state that does equine rescue work," Tuhy said. "Where are these horses going to go if we can't help them?"