June 4, 2014

Veterinarians: Not one horse in good health

By KIM SMITH DEDAM Press-Republican

---- — ESSEX — The 41 horses seized from Shelley Wing’s farm suffered from chronic malnutrition, three veterinarians testified on Tuesday in Essex Town Court.

On the Henneke Scale they used to assess the condition of the animals, 5 is the median score needed to indicate good health.

“There were no 5s,” Dr. Diane Dodd said of the entire herd.

Half the horses scored a 1 or 2, she said. Just a few were 4s; the rest 3s.

“This means not fed, day after day,” Dodd said.


The case, before Essex Town Justice Steve Sayward, alleges Wing and a Prayer Farm owner Shelley Wing did not feed or provide adequate care for the horses on her property.

The animals were seized last September; Wing is charged with 41 misdemeanor counts of animal neglect for failure to provide sustenance.

Drs. Susan Russell and Lacey Knapp, both veterinarians in Westport, assessed the horses at the farm after Essex County Sheriff’s deputies served a search warrant there.

Both testified that, using the Henneke Scale on the first day to evaluate 30 animals, they found all were below the median score of 5.

Dodd returned to the farm on a second day, Sept. 20, to help corral and capture the horses that were not found in the first attempt.

She said she was called in to use tranquilizers where necessary, as several of the animals were “wild” and not broken to halter.


Wing’s attorney, Public Defender William Tansey, asked Russell if they were there just to seize property amid hasty assessment.

“We were called in to determine if the horses were in nutritional danger,” Russell told him.

“We were also catching the horses, and we were looking for reasons for it (the horse farm situation) to be OK, actually.”

Russell said the Henneke Scale requires palpation of each animal and visual scoring of six parts of the horse’s anatomy, including the neck, withers, loin, tailhead, ribs and shoulder.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Langey provided several photos of each horse as prosecution went through details of conditions found on all 41 animals.

Copies of the veterinarians’ Body Condition Scoring Charts were presented as evidence.


Russell and Knapp worked together to examine and triage the herd the first day, as sheriff’s deputies and horse rescue personnel prepared to remove animals deemed emaciated or very thin.

Two round bales of hay were provided for the herd in a common feeding area on Sept. 18, Essex County Sheriff’s Deputy Bob Rice had testified on Monday.

They did not address what Russell and Knapp considered chronic malnutrition of the entire herd.

“If you have animals that have needs and are in states of decline, then they need to have individualized feeding … with individual attention,” she said.

“Two feeders for 40 animals — it’s impossible. (We) didn’t walk in (to the farm) and see just one animal in need of assistance. The husbandry on the farm was inadequate.”

Knapp explained that the Henneke Score assesses fat and muscle coverage on the equine skeletal frame.

“I noticed there were a lot of horses there (on Wing’s farm) on limited acreage,” she said, relaying what she saw on Sept. 18.

She said the pastureland had been grazed very short, and there was a lot of debris, including old buckets, downed trees, wood and trash in the field.

“Birch trees looked like they had been chewed on,” Knapp said.

“I did not see any hay put up anywhere.”


Methodically, Langey and Assistant District Attorney Jamie Martineau went through photographs of each horse.

Each had been numbered by the Sheriff’s Department for inventory and tracking purposes.

Horse No. 20, a mare, scored a 1 on the Henneke Scale, the lowest possible mark.

“This horse could easily die by malnutrition,” Knapp said.

Her foal, No. 21, a foal, scored 1+ on the scale.

Knapp said the condition of the young horse’s hoof walls indicated there had been a big nutritional shock to the young animal’s system.

“It was not getting enough to eat,” the vet said. “That’s as close as you can get to touching a (horse) skeleton.”

Another pregnant mare had two offspring still nursing; all were designated thin and scored low on the scale.

Each of the three veterinarians said mares with foals or that are pregnant should score even as high as 7 on the 9-tiered Henneke Scale.


Tansey questioned the veterinarian’s assessment procedure.

“When you feel the body parts, it becomes a bit of a subjective test, doesn’t it?” he asked.

Knapp said no, suggesting the use of words like “skinny” or “thin” are subjective.

The medical evaluation using a standard numerical scale was adapted to be an objective test, she said.

Tansey asked if the amount of fat on the animals would be better assessed using blood tests.

Knapp said she was unaware of any test that showed how fat in horses is metabolized.


Dodd assessed the second round of 13 horses, including an overlap of two that the other vets had scored on the first day.

“We were right on the same page,” she said.

All of Wing’s horses were taken.

To have remained on the farm, they would have had to score a 5, which is required of all horses shown at county fairs and at 4-H shows, Dodd said of the common evaluation practice for horse husbandry.

She was eventually retained by Essex County to monitor conditions of all the horses as they were placed in rescue and foster care.

The veterinarian said all them “were insatiable for water the first week.”

She described how volunteer caregivers would fill 5-gallon buckets in each horse’s stall at the fairgrounds, only to come back around and find them empty.

The water buckets were filled constantly, Dodd said, for the first week.

Normal watering for 41 horses would require a 100-gallon tank filled 10 times a day, Dodd explained.

One watering tub was found, partially filled, on the Wing farm, officials said under oath on Monday.

Fecal testing was completed on all horses, and all but two tested positive for parasites.

“These horses were all muscle-wasted,” Dodd said.


At the trial, again held in the Town of Essex Fire Station, Wing watched closely as her attorney cross-examined witnesses, and she grinned from time to time.

She leaned forward during much of the testimony, elbows on the table, flipping a pen through her right hand.

The six jurors and one alternate viewed all photographs and saw every Henneke Chart prepared during triage.

The trial continues at 9 a.m. today. 

Email Kim Smith