Sunday, March 26, 2023

Horse neglect likely took time, some allege it was intentional; New Hanover Sheriff still investigating

One of seven horses rescued from the Woody family's farm in Wilmington last month. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton's Rehab Ranch)
One of seven horses rescued from the Woody family’s farm in Wilmington last month. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton’s Rehab Ranch)

Seven horses were found in severely malnourished condition on a Wilmington-area horse farm. Experts say, in general, these conditions wouldn’t have happened overnight. Some in the horse community think it was the result of selective neglect.

WILMINGTON — Five of the horses rescued from a farm off Greenville Loop Road in Wilmington last month are improving due to the introduction of proper diets and basic health care. 

According to Jewell Horton, Pender County’s animal shelter manager,  five horses that came under her care at Horton’s Rehab Ranch (which Horton runs, though it is not affiliated with the county) in mid-July were originally observed to have “body scores” of either a one or two. The system is used to rate a horse’s overall body condition on a scale of one to nine. A score of one or two means a horse is emaciated, with little or no fatty tissue covering the vertebrae, ribs, tailbone, shoulder, and neck. 

READ MORE: New Hanover Sheriff’s Office: No charges against Greenville Loop farm after one horse dies, five sent to hospital

After three weeks at Horton’s ranch, under the official care of Penderosa Rescue and Sanctuary in Willard, she said the horses are showing signs of significant improvement as they continue to fill out along their backs and abdomen areas. Although she couldn’t speak about any details of an ongoing investigation into the farm, owned by Robert Woody, she did point to the horses’ short-term improvement as evidence of improper care by the Woody family.

“These are very basic equine care things — oral care, foot care, an adequate diet,” Horton said. “And in this short time you’re seeing improvement. I think that does speak to the situation … They are improving with basic care; I have not had to go to any heroics.”

Allegations of intentional neglect

Jennifer Witkowski, a horse trainer and advocate in Pender County who has been in close contact with the region’s horse-owner community regarding the investigation, alleges the Woody family clearly neglected the horses — a situation made worse by the role of the daughter, Sarah Woody, as an “accomplished horse woman.”

Four of the rescued horses at Horton's Rehab Ranch in Pender County. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton's Rehab Ranch)
Four of the rescued horses at Horton’s Rehab Ranch in Pender County. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton’s Rehab Ranch)

According to Witkowski, Ms. Woody graduated from Martin Community College with a degree in Equine Sciences; she was enrolled in the Cape Fear Community College veterinary technician program as late as Fall 2018; and she was a long-standing employee of Reagan Equine, the animal hospital in Wilmington where the horses were first assessed before transported to Horton’s Rehab Ranch (Woody listed Reagan Equine on her LinkedIn page, but later deleted or made the page private).

Witkowski said she believed the Woodys had neglected some horses at the expense of others, noting that Ms. Woody had considerable experience with horses, both as a vet student and showing horses professionally.

 “[Sarah Woody] is a vet tech — the resources are there that she could’ve used to reach out for help,” she said, adding that  Ms. Woody had a history of horse-showing, ranging from intercollegiate to national championships (dating back to at least 2008, when Woody placed at the national level in the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association).

“The horses that she has showed, including her current horse, Hollywood, appear from photographs on social media to be well taken care of, which supports that she has a working knowledge of how to care for a horse appropriately, and that she simply chose to not care for her other animals to the same degree,” Witkowski said. 

A photo, dated October 21, 2018, from Sarah Woody's Facebook page; the photo appears to show Woody riding 'Hollywood,' her horse. (Port City Daily photo / Facebook)
A photo, dated October 21, 2018, from Sarah Woody’s Facebook page; the photo appears to show Woody riding ‘Hollywood,’ her horse. (Port City Daily photo / Facebook)

Horton confirmed that Ms. Woody cared for a show horse on the family farm, along with three other horses that were also properly cared for.

Ms. Woody has not responded to a request for comment sent on July 29. 

Reagan Equine issued a statement in response to questions of Ms. Woody’s employment as a veterinarian technician at the animal hospital. 

“We are personally shocked and outraged at the situation regarding the starved horses from New Hanover County. Due to client/patient confidentiality, we are unable to further comment on this situation,” the statement said. 

An ongoing investigation

According to Lt. Jerry Brewer, spokesman of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), which is overseeing an investigation carried out by the county’s animal control unit, the investigation is ongoing.

We don’t comment on open investigations,” Brewer said on Tuesday. 

In late July, Brewer said the NHCSO was not currently pressing charges against the Woody family because they had been cooperating with the investigation. He also said the family had fallen on hard financial times due to certain medical conditions.

“Because [Robert Woody] is in a wheelchair, and then their truck broke down, he hasn’t been able to travel and get hay for the horses,” Brewer said at the time. 

He also said Ms. Woody had been coming to the farm to help her parents feed grain, but her role as a full-time student and full-time employee made such a task difficult. 

“So it’s not something they planned. It just got overwhelming for them … this just kind of got out of their hands faster than they probably realized it did, versus someone meaningfully hurting an animal,” Brewer said.

According to Horton, each of the horses under her care showed varying degrees of abnormal teeth deterioration, which causes improper chewing and thus poor digestion. One horse, a 22-year-old Apaloosa named Bruno (named Brutus by the original owner), had lacerations in his cheeks because his teeth weren’t being filed.

Horton also believed NHCSO was conducting the necessary interviews and, overall, conducting a thorough investigation. According to Witkowski, Deputy Janice Covil is conducting the investigation and is waiting on final reports to be submitted before presenting them to District Attorney Ben David’s office. 

Kate Hepworth, an assistant clinical professor of equine medicine at North Carolina State University, said she was not familiar with the case but noted that conclusions shouldn’t be made without considering a whole range of factors — poor appetites common among older horses, systemic illness, feed quality issues, and horse herd dynamics, among others.

Bruno, a 22-year-old Appaloosa, plays in a pile of shavings at Horton's Rehab Ranch. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton's Rehab Ranch)
Bruno, a 22-year-old Appaloosa, plays in a pile of shavings at Horton’s Rehab Ranch. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton’s Rehab Ranch)

But when told that eight horses were found to be in emaciated or near-emaciated conditions — one horse, Jordan, died shortly after being found in a mud-hole on the farm — out of a total of 13 horses, she said an improper diet was likely.

If there’s that many that are underweight, there’s definitely a good chance they’re not getting enough food,” Hepworth said. 

She said that if a majority of horses were found to be excessively skinny, and other systemic illnesses were not factors, this strengthened the case that there was not enough food or that the quality of food was sub-par. 

According to Hepworth, although a horse’s breed, age, and initial health condition should be considered, “it would probably take multiple months” for a healthy horse to reach the level of a body score of a one or a two. 

Mark Darrough can be reached at or (970) 413-3815

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