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    Photos by Mickie Winters

    On a March afternoon, as the blue sky fades to gray, a cold, wet wind lashes the farms of central Kentucky, signaling a late-winter snow about to burst. Angie Cheak shivers, buries her small frame in layers and walks up to a wooden fence for a reunion. A blind mare — one eye surgically scooped out, the other a milky opal orb still in the socket — nuzzles Cheak’s face. The 53-year-old with wrap-around sunglasses and hair slicked into a tight ponytail quietly coos, calling the mare a nickname I can’t quite make out, either “Sugar Bum” or “Sugar Bomb.”

    Image: Angie Cheak pets a horse she recovered from a Jessamine County farm. 

    The blind mare shares a field with two other mares in their mid-20s and two donkeys. Three weeks ago, Cheak and some other volunteers rescued the animals from a “horrible situation,” Cheak says, a “hoarding situation.” She describes the Jessamine County farm outside Lexington as one that had left the equines without water, food, farrier care or vaccinations. The night before Cheak loaded up the animals, she says one mare died from malnutrition and a uterine infection.

    In the Jessamine County case, Cheak says the owner agreed to give up the animals. But in some equine abuse and neglect cases, there can be a span of weeks or months in which the ownership of seized horses hangs in legal limbo. During an ongoing investigation or court proceedings, an owner may relinquish rights or fight to keep the animals. Finding foster homes for these temporarily orphaned horses can be challenging. Most people are not ready to shelter a number of horses for an indefinite time as legal proceedings wind through the court system. It’s an expensive undertaking, anywhere from $200 to $1,000 per month per horse, depending on the severity of their condition.

    Cheak and a few of her horsewomen friends want to fill that gap with a nonprofit they’ve planned called the Equine Sanctuary Center of Kentucky, the primary mission being to foster horses confiscated by Animal Control agencies or Humane Societies across Kentucky. The center would tend to any medical problems and keep the horses as long as necessary. Should a judge decide to return the animals to their original owner, the center would oblige. If a judge severed ownership rights, the center would likely hand the horses off to other organizations like Old Friends, New Vocations or the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, so that they could work on finding the animals a permanent placement.

    The concept is still in its infancy. Cheak, who is an accomplished chef in Danville by day, says her motivation is simple — a lifelong love of horses. The inspiration hit after caring for some of the 43 horses at the center of a headline-grabbing abuse and neglect case.

    Last June, a Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer named Maria Borrell was charged with 43 counts of animal cruelty after investigators found 43 horses abandoned, starving and living in filth on a farm in Mercer County. (One of the horses in the case — Z Camelot — is American Pharoah’s brother, and another was the son of 1997 Derby winner Silver Charm.) Maria Borrell’s father, Charles Borrell, was arrested on the same charges and entered an Alford plea last October. Maria remains at large. Though many in the horse industry have clues about her whereabouts, animal-cruelty and -neglect charges for horses are misdemeanors, which means authorities cannot extradite her. If she stays out of Kentucky, she’s safe.

    Cheak was among many volunteers who helped nurse some of the horses back to health. She still has countless “before” photos of Thoroughbreds with ribs pressing at the skin and bald patches from rain rot. (For ten years running, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has ranked Kentucky as the worst state for animal-protection laws, citing no felony provisions for neglect or abandonment, no restrictions on future possession of animals for those convicted of animal cruelty and veterinarians being prohibited from reporting suspected abuse due to confidentiality.) Rusty Ford, the equine program manager at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, says the Borrell case brought incredible challenges, the main one being finding a patchwork of farms that would accept the animals. “A number of the facilities require transfer of ownership before they can or will accept horses,” Ford explains. “While in this instance we were able to work through those issues, having a facility operating in a defined manner to fill that temporary housing void would be welcomed.”

    “Hey, Sugar Bear,” Cheak says, rubbing a white donkey named Jack under the chin. She points to his petite sidekick name Peppermint. “He’s a bucking, biting little fella.” Cheak is visiting these animals at McConathy Farms, a rescue organization that agreed to partner with the Equine Sanctuary Center until it raises enough funds and finds a farm to lease.

    Image: A donkey named Jack will soon be up for adoption after recovering from neglect.

    Marylu Ernsting, a co-founder of the center, says the facility may encourage county Animal Control officers to investigate and act on horse-cruelty cases more aggressively. Because counties have to foot the bill on animals seized, it can create hesitance, Ernsting says. Counties need to find space to put the horses and cover expensive veterinary costs. (In March the Kentucky Legislature passed a bill that would allow courts to collect restitution or take away horses from anyone convicted of second-degree animal cruelty.) But with the Equine Sanctuary Center, horses in need would have a caregiver, shelter and their medical costs covered. Ernsting stresses that a lot of good work is already being done on behalf of horses in Kentucky. But there’s room for improvement. “We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or look to do better than what’s already being done,” she says. “We want to fill in that gray area.”

    This originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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