Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace James Metts awarded 26 horses on Tuesday to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, following a lengthy hearing.
The horses belonged to Jerry Svoboda of Splendora, who represented himself in court. Ray Johnson from the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office represented the state. Pct. 4 Livestock Deputy Don Smith testified first. The veteran livestock deputy stated he had dealt with Svoboda concerning the horses for three consecutive years. Each of the previous encounters left Smith confident the issue would be resolved since Svoboda initially made corrections and the horses’ conditions showed improvement.
However, the severity of the conditions this year coupled with previous attempts to have Svoboda bring conditions into compliance resulted in a decision by Precinct 4 to seize the animals and ask the Judge to award them to the SPCA. Smith stated he first saw the conditions of Svoboda’s horses from the road, because he lives nearby, and his office had numerous reports of neglect from citizens.
Deputy Smith cited issues with lack of feed, overcrowding, and hoof problems. He also stated Svoboda previously had a property on Brown Road where he kept horses and when citizens complained, Smith found them in poor condition and found evidence they were fed tortillas which can cause colic and potentially kill them.
Smith said the horses found on Svoboda’s properties in 2008 and 2009 were in similar condition to this year. He called the horses’ living conditions “deplorable.”
“We didn’t try to seize them because he complied and brought them back up to condition,” Deputy Smith said. “We thought he’d abide by what we asked.”
“We try to work with the owners of the horses,” he said. “We don’t want their horses- the county doesn’t want their horses.”
Deputy Smith testified the property faces FM 2090, and he noticed the horses had torn down part of the fence along the busy roadway trying to reach food and the fence was inadequately repaired, posing a danger to motorists on the busy thoroughfare.
Pct. 4 Deputy Dwayne Morrow’s testimony concurred with Deputy Smith’s. He was the first livestock officer to speak with Svoboda this year and said Svoboda told him “the horse market was down and it had been a hard winter.”
“I told (Svoboda) he needed to do something, we’re having continual complaints,” Deputy Morrow said. “I told him we’d give him a couple of weeks for improvement and we’d be checking.”
Svoboda promised to comply. However deputies testified they returned to find what Deputy Smith called “deplorable conditions,” citing lack of food, clean drinking water and necessary care for hoofs and teeth.
“They had prominent ribs, hip bones and back bones,” he said. “There was no feed anywhere.”
Debbie Michelson, Cruelty Investigator for the Houston SPCA testified she had also dealt with Svoboda and his horses over a period of years, making the most recent visit her third. She said many were severely underweight with hips and ribs showing, and many hoof issues such as cracked hoofs. There was a barn with several horses inside and no ventilation. The windows and doors were closed, the stalls were filthy and there were indications of parasites, she said. Michelson also cited open wounds, poor skin conditions, loss of hair, one horse that was severely lame with no evidence of recent care.
SPCA Veterinarian Dr. Susan Skelly also testified, saying her opinion and that of two other staff veterinarians was that the majority of the 26 horses were in poor to very poor condition, with some scoring a 1 on a scale of 1 to 9.
Judge Metts began by saying he believed Svoboda had been “open and honest” during the hearing.
“I believe you do have feelings for horses and I don’t think you got up one morning and decided to be cruel or inhumane to horses,” Judge Metts said.
The Judge continued telling Svoboda he and his family always had horses and he realized their upkeep is expensive and could become a financial burden.
“I also understand about dreams,” Judge Metts said. “Most of the dreams in my life have come true, but sometimes things just happen, whether it’s beyond our control or within our control.”
“The bottom line is, there were 26 horses, and for whatever reason they wound up on 10 acres of property,” he said. “There’s certainly not adequate grass there.”
Judge Metts said he was a lifelong resident of East Montgomery County and was familiar with the property in question. Based on the majority of the photos and testimony presented, the Judge awarded the horses to the SPCA, along with $7,470 in reimbursement for expenses.
Pct. 4 Constable Kenneth “Rowdy” Hayden said the case was a sad situation for the horses and for Mr. Svoboda and his family.
“It’s unfortunate when we have to seize livestock, but when animals are suffering and their owners are unable to correct the situation for whatever reason, we have no choice,” Constable Hayden said. “Mr. Svoboda had more than one opportunity to get into compliance.”
Deputy Smith said as the economy has worsened, the number of neglect cases has grown, along with the number of large animals abandoned.
“Hay costs $9 per bale, feed costs about $10 per 50 lb. sack,” Deputy Smith said. “People lose their jobs and with the average horse eating 8 to 10 lbs of food and a half bale of hay daily, they just can’t afford it.”
It is a crime to abandon a horse, and some of the horses have caused major accidents injuring or killing people and horses. Two horses have died on were seriously injured recently on area roadways. People should instead contact the SPCA, the Houston Humane Society or any equine rescue organization. Those organizations will take the horses, no questions asked, get them healthy and find carefully screened adoptive homes for them.
“If you have a problem and can’t take care of your horses, please notify somebody,” Deputy Smith said.