GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Horsing around is serious business for Jane Heath and Shanna Chism.
Still, as Heath and Chism showed off a pair of horses last week that were rescued from a neglect case earlier this summer, their faces beamed — both the horses' and the women's faces.
It was only when Heath, the executive director of the Montana Horse Sanctuary, and Chism, who provided a foster home for the paint mares, recalled the condition of the horses when they first met them earlier this summer that the women stopped smiling.
The horses had trouble getting off trailers, their manes were wispy, hooves were overgrown and their teeth showed signs of wear from chewing on wood and rocks in their search for food, Chism said.
Now, four of the five horses seized are ready to be adopted out after undergoing intense rehabilitation and taking part in a treatment plan set up by the Montana Horse Sanctuary, veterinarians Kelly Manzer and Grant Smith, and Chism and the other foster care providers.
The fifth horse, Summer, died of colic in the care of Chism.
Chism also has cared for Butterfly since July 2, and Angel was just recently placed with her at her home that is located just after the turn to Fairfield from Great Falls.
Both Butterfly and Angel are beautiful paint mare crosses, which are known for being good work horses with a nice gait "so you don't get beat up on the trail riding them," Chism said, adding they have sweet dispositions, are not high-strung and "it's hard to find a paint horse that you would call unattractive."
Chism said the damage done to them from the neglect they suffered, though, has long-lasting effects.
"Once they're behind in development, it is hard for them to catch up," she said, pointing out that Butterfly and Angel have small heads and look immature.
"I would have never assumed they were as old as they are," she said. "They looked like babies."
In truth, they estimate Butterfly is seven and Angel is about 10.
She said they likely will need smaller riders, children or women, because they may never catch up.
The horses have come a long way, though, in just eight weeks thanks to the care they received at the foster homes, Heath said.
The care program meant starting with several small doses of hay in the beginning. They started with about 7 pounds of hay a day spread out over several feedings and working up to 25 pounds a day.
"It's really easy to kill a horse that is starving with too much food," Chism said. "Their guts can't perform like they are supposed to because they haven't built up their digestive enzymes."
The horses started off skittish but have come to trust humans again because of the quality of foster home providers, Heath said.
"They just had desperate faces and eyes and they had to learn to trust me," Chism said. "But once they know that people will take care of them, they will do anything for you."
When Butterfly first came to her, she wouldn't come out of the back of the pen because she wasn't used to being out in the open, and she wouldn't drink out of the creek.
"It's true what they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," she said.
Arnold and Lois Owens of Great Falls first saw the horses were in trouble when they were feeding their horses at B-C stables on the eastern edge of Great Falls.
They started calling law enforcement and anyone who would listen to tell about the conditions of the horses. It was hard to get someone to come out and inspect the horses.
Finally, when the Owenses saw Penny, a 20-year-old or older mixed breed bay mare on the ground and unable to get up, they made more calls that eventually resulted in Cascade County sheriff's officers seizing the horses.
Arnold Owens said he took a lot of heat for turning the owner in from those who thought he should just mind his own business, "but that's not going to happen when I'm next door," he said.
Chism and Heath said that is exactly the attitude necessary to stop the neglect of horses.
"A lot of people think they just shouldn't get involved, but it's the law."
Today, Penny is "a beautiful horse with a shiny coat," Heath said. "I am astounded at how much weight she has gained. She is a very kind horse, easy to catch. She just loves people."
"I've heard that the old lady is doing good," Arnold Owens said, satisfaction apparent in his voice.
Chism and Heath bring up the need for stiffer penalties continually in conversation, saying most neglect cases result in "slaps on the wrist."
In addition to harsher penalties, Chism suggests making a mandatory reporter requirement for those who board horses and for veterinarians.
Chism, who is the administrator at the Juvenile Detention Center in Great Falls, points out that she must report abuse cases involving children.
"It's the law," she said. "I have to, even if it's my best friend or family."
Heath also said it would be beneficial for law enforcement officers to undergo training to be able to better identify neglected and starving horses.
In the end, they both come back to saying there is not enough deterrent.
"Sometimes a night in jail can really change someone's attitude," Chism said.
Heath bristles at the notion that there are more neglect cases in recent years.
"This is not about the economy," she said. "Responsible horse owners have always been responsible horse owners."
She did say that it is all too common.
"(Arnold Owens) said he was going to drive around the state with his camera because can you imagine how many there must be if these horses were starving on the edge of Great Falls," Heath said.
The horses, which are the property of Cascade County, will be adopted through the Montana Horse Sanctuary, which has paid out about $12,000 to help horses recover from neglect cases in Cascade County this year.
The sanctuary is funded by donations, grants and the specialized license plate program, Heath said.
Cost for adopting one of the horses is $150 and applicants will need to fill out paperwork and undergo a home visit inspection "so we can make sure the horses are going to be as happy as the people," Heath said.
The horses all seem to have undergone a fair amount of training, Heath added. They will take saddles, stand still for a veterinarian inspection and board and unboard a trailer.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com