Photo by Donna Fairbairn

There are terrible politics involved with horse rescue – I say terrible, because mostly the obstacles are man-made and prevent the expedient and proper care of the compromised horses.

The problem with the Hebron horse farm was that so many people who should have been more observant, and had more of a moral compass, but who were not horsepeople, should have acted. At least we think they should have. The reality is that they did act and tried to act but could not bring the full power of the legal system to back them up until a video went public.

All of us who have horses and know what thin looks like have been in turn, aghast, shocked, saddened, disgusted, and angry at the photographs we have all seen of the surviving horses of that Hebron graveyard masquerading as a farm.

Late winter with no forage, no apparent feed and no care, with mares foaling, created the perfect storm of neglect for the herd with no shelter or protection from the last vestiges of a cold Delmarva winter. They could do nothing but lay down and die, exhausted, unfed, uncared for, diseased, and preyed upon by buzzards, feral cats and probably other wild animals. And die they did, body after body going to the earth, scattered near the living, who wandered searching for feed among their bones. Perhaps the offspring of the dead picked among the carcasses of their mothers or fathers, surviving until the next freeze iced over their water, and their dry and parched intestines twisted into knots of screaming pain to kill them.

What we can’t wrap our heads around is the 80-plus visits made by law enforcement, many of whom also own and love animals, to that horrendous property of death.
Why were so many signs of neglect and starvation apparently ignored? Presumably bones of the dead horses could be seen once you drove down the driveway. Neighbors have reported dead horses, bloated and exposed, with buzzards picking at the carcasses. Thin and neglected horses have been loose on the road, observed by the public, for years.

In 2014-2015, five presumably starved/neglected horses were identified by authorities, and the owner, Barbara Pilchard, agreed to a course of “action” by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Maryland Horse Industry Board, and animal control of Wicomico County. The current county sheriff detailed the agreement in a press conference on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.
Follow up in the form of visits and compliance with some kind of recommendations for feeding existed then, but lost in the pubic record was who was responsible for checking on Pilchard, and what enforcement, if any, was to be undertaken should compliance not be forthcoming. When did that agreement end, and who said it was over?
What happened in that process? Then, the many, many visits to Cherry Walk Road to deal with loose horses on the road and on neighboring property prompted what action? Law enforcement used small, apparently useless civil penalties to bring Pilchard to some kind of tiny justice by charging her with letting her horses poop in the road and other people’s yards, for which they did get one conviction, resulting in a 30-day suspended sentence with probation. Minor civil offenses, but it seems to us that the big elephant in the room was the neglect of the horses, for which law enforcement did not seem to be able to do anything about.  Seems. And this is where we, as human beings, need to examine how humans are, and what we are, and how we think and deal with life and circumstances of life and death around us all.

Just looking at photos and evidence, it appears to me that however sunk in mental illness and depravity Pilchard seemed to be, she made an attempt to remove dead horses by dragging them, possibly with a tractor or her truck, to a boneyard on the property that wasn’t readily visible. If that was the case, it would be hard to see from a public road, and without permission, you cannot access private property. In addition, anecdotal reports are saying she was terroristic and threatened neighbors and others who attempted to round up and catch loose horses, or go on her property to inform her of loose horses on the road. She was reported to have threatened to run over a person who had caught a horse and was arguing with her on the road, and showed weapons to other people while threatening them to stay off her property. Anyone who has had numerous visits from law enforcement with little regard for complaints is clearly oblivious to doing the right thing. Her obsessive, combative and dismissive behavior made her dangerous, as do most severe mental illnesses gone untreated.

Let me stop here and talk about horses and the herd dynamic. When horses are grouped and live every minute of their lives in a herd situation, they learn survival depends on eating what you can when you can and running from danger immediately. If you don’t eat, and you don’t run, you don’t live very long. The uncut stallions mixed with the mares of all ages insured most of the mares were constantly in foal, which is when they are responsible for feeding at least two horses (a mare with foal) or some cases three horses (a mare, with foal nursing at her side, bred back for another foal). Any equine nutritionist will tell you that is the absolute most needy any horse can be in terms of food. Protein and mineral requirements are the top of the charts. The precise time of year they need the most nutrition is also the time of year when pastures are at their worst and hay and grain are needed the most – late winter, early spring. So the perfect storm, so to speak, for the starvation of mares in foal was March…when the farm’s death toll was discovered. While some in a herd are desperately fighting for a spot at the hay bale, others are eating well, look as though fat covers their bones, and are moving easily. That is the herd dynamic, where stronger and more active horses beat out the lesser animals to get at the available food. This way creates some horses that look okay, while some are not so good. The problem over the years, and especially when the 150 acres of pasture was in good grass in the summer, was the good horses. You cannot apply neglect laws to apparently healthy horses, and many in the herd were relatively strong for most of the year.

I personally have driven past this farm several times and each time noticed the large number of horses in the fields and some of the mares with bony hips and spines, but the majority of the horses I was able to view looked normal. Even now, within the rescued horses, many are in fairly good condition, but the neglected and starved animals are indeed horrific.

Nevertheless, there is a long legal and public history of complaint of neglect with this 100-horse herd – which at one time may have numbered over 150 to 200 horses.

But it ultimately took a television helicopter flyover, and a live streaming of what they were looking at, along with the convenient juxtaposition of one of the station’s reporters having an interview time with the sheriff that coincided exactly with the live stream, to finally put in motion the seizure. I think the horrors of that video finally rose to the level of taking action beyond just nuisance laws. I also believe that the owner was hiding the evilness of the property to the best of her ability, and health and perhaps finances slowly stopped those actions. I think that timing, an incredibly fortunate array of timing finally got action – the end of winter, the lack of hiding carcasses, a fed-up neighbor who finally had enough, a television reporter in the right place at the right time with the county sheriff, and nature’s time honored cycle of birth and conception set it all in motion.

There is public record that people who had been on the farm, who traveled the road, or lived nearby had been seeing these scenes for at least 15 years and making regular complaints about them. Supposedly, the person who finally got the television station to fly the helicopter over the farm had called and reported the dead horses to law enforcement before that call to the media.

Was it the spectre of publicity that initiated action? I believe that finally it was, but not for the reasons many blame. I believe that finally, having public acknowledgement of the scope and spectre of the Hebron horse farm problem gave the authorities the support they needed to go in guns blazing. This was what they were waiting for. There were no more blurred lines. The niceties and mild civil penalties they had tried to utilize to bring justice to this person were over – now, finally, they could act.

I believe the immensely problematic size of the horse herd – 100 horses that were for all intents, wild, unhandled, neglected, many starved, sick, hurt or suffering – to this small country area was more than a huge problem – it probably looked impossible to a non horse person. After all, the county had handled a 300-dog hoarding problem just two years before – but those were tiny Pomeranian dogs, that could be picked up and put in cages.

Big, strong, fast and frightening fully-grown horses were quite another matter, it seems, and those of us who have had horses all our lives probably can’t understand the reluctance to act from someone who has not. The county sheriff stated the officers were afraid of the electric fence; surely they would have been afraid of a mature stallion looking to defend his harem, or an group of 10 or 15 galloping horses coming at them down a road. The state of the property, with mud, holes, dead animals, smells, buzzards, manure and dangerously collapsed buildings would also have frightened anyone not used to walking around a pasture with such obstacles including a herd of horses wandering among the junk. It was going to take a village – more than that, a whole region of people – to get this job done.

I see those remnants of horses dead and feel the pain they felt when they died of colic, illness, or starvation. How any human being with a beating heart cannot feel that empathy for another being, that bleeds, and feels pain and lives on this earth – you begin to get close to understanding the depravity of mental illness, but only scratching the surface. Everyone of my friends that has been on the property says they are affected by what they have seen.

So I think about law enforcement and animal control people. When you do or see anything over and over, it begins to feel usual. You deal with what you see, compartmentalize, and go on. The desperateness, the persistent feeling of dread from the gruesome sights, pales over time. Those, especially those in law enforcement, often see the most horribleness of horribleness – and that is what we pay them to do. They handle all the crappiest shit that people do because we don’t want to deal with these situations. When we hire these people, we give them training, we pay them, we provide a leadership structure for them, and pat them on the back while we throw them to the wolves. Good luck, deal with it (because we don’t want to). And law enforcement goes out into our world and does what they do. You know what you know. You keep your job, you say nothing. You do it by the book. You refuse to allow emotion to get in the way. So much that they see is wrong and hurtful and often, so little they can do makes a difference.
I know how it feels to be so ineffective yet do your job and do it as well as you can. I also see things that are wrong. Many times I get into my car and think about what to do. Most of the time, when I have stuck my neck out, I have had subsequent trouble follow any attempt to “do the right thing”. I do not have bravery about it any more. I accept that I am a chicken, and that because being threatened by very bad people can have an affect on your life and presumed safety. Even just trying to help a person who does not want to understand, is completely ignorant, and has made up their mind they were going to obstruct you at every turn possible. They lay awake at night planning what they are going to do and say when you show up on their property. It’s maddeningly difficult to deal with such people.

Law enforcement lives with this every day. So, I understand it. I don’t like the fact that there are many excuses for not taking care of the starving and neglected horses in previous years, because the repercussions now will be very big, but I understand it, at least some of the reasons for it. I believe and I think others also believe, that human beings want to do the right thing, and in the end, the right thing was done. We will wait and see what investigation brings us about the facts of the property and who was responsible for actions that should have been taken – because that too is important, mostly to try and find the flaws and make changes to make sure serious hoarding of animals does not occur again. The most important part of justice is the living horses that were rescued now have a chance.

Justice for the bones in that Hebron pasture – it’s coming.

6/10/2018 Update:

Barbara Pilchard was indicted by a Wicomico County Grand Jury on May 21 on 16 felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and 48 misdemeanor counts of animal abuse and neglect.