The veterinarian making a court-ordered visit to the East Bethel ranch graded each of Lowell Friday's horses on a scale of 1 to 9, from emaciated to extremely fat. One horse, Special Effects, rated a 5 during the summer examination.
But another veterinarian, called by the Animal Humane Society to the ranch last month, found a 930-pound emaciated horse, whose ribs, pelvis, spine and shoulder seemed to burst through her skin. Special Effects had lice and parasites and was rated 1.5 when officials seized her and six other horses from Friday's property on Nov. 16.
On Monday, the East Bethel breeder was in an Anoka County courtroom seeking to have Special Effects returned. Friday, who has not been charged with a crime in that episode or one in August when officials seized 10 other horses, asked in court how two veterinarians' assessments could be so different. Humane Society representatives, however, talked of how Friday allegedly allowed a horse to degenerate so dangerously in mere months.
"The horse weighed what it was supposed to weigh," said Friday, who entered the courtroom wearing a black cowboy hat, a dark shirt with white horses galloping its front and back, a denim vest, a belt buckle depicting a warrior on a horse, and plenty of grit under his finger nails. "Why are they taking that horse?" he recalled asking.
"At the end of the day, emaciation is emaciation," said Keith Streff, the investigator from the Humane Society who has spent more than 10 years responding to complaints about the way Friday treats horses.
Friday was convicted of misdemeanor mistreatment of animals after the death of a colt in 2007. His probation calls for four court-ordered veterinary visits to his ranch each year, Streff said. When veterinarian Jeff Johnson visited the ranch during the summer, he graded Special Effects a 5, which is considered normal.
On Monday, Friday told Anoka County Judge Jenny Walker Jasper and a courtroom filled with animal activists and rescue groups that he prides himself on having sufficient hay, water and grain for his horses. But veterinarian Nicole Eller-Medina said she found a less than wholesome atmosphere when she visited Friday's ranch with Streff.
The hay the horses fed on was yellow, coarse and of low quality, she said.
One water source was only half full, with dark-colored water.
The seized horses were dangerously thin, she said. One weighed 916 pounds -- a good 200 pounds less than other horses. Many had bad hooves. One had ulcers, veterinarians testified.
Special Effects had no muscle, no fat to sustain herself, Eller-Medina said. Her hair was "patchy."
Within nine days of Friday's horses being seized and taken to the University of Minnesota's equine center, Special Effects had gained 12 pounds, said Dr. Christie Ward, an equine veterinarian from the university. It could take as long as 24 weeks before Special Effects returns to what the university considers a normal condition.
"That tells us, if I feed her, she's capable of gaining weight," Ward said. She added that all seven horses seized three weeks ago from Friday's ranch had body condition scores of 1 or 2.
Friday, who now has 28 horses, down from 67 a year ago, said that he employed help that "failed" to feed his horses. But he said he plans to get somebody to do his evening feeding.
"It's not that I can't feed 28 horses," he said. "It takes me less than an hour."
His attorney, Marshall Tanick, said that Friday was pursuing the return of only one of his horses for economic reasons. It was all he could afford for now, Friday said outside the courtroom.
"He doesn't realize his horses were so thin," said Drew Fitzpatrick, who heads the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation in Zimmerman, Minn. "The horses we've taken from him have all gained weight. They're fine. What does that tell you?"
Other recent cases
Friday is not the only Minnesota horse breeder under scrutiny.
Three members of an Appleton family were each charged this summer with a felony for cruelty to animals, the first felony charges ever in Minnesota for the starving of horses, authorities say.
In July, a Starbuck, Minn., woman was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $500 after officials found seven dead horses and 14 others emaciated and dehydrated on her property.
In September, eight starving horses and two mules were seized from a farm near Litchfield, Minn. No charges had been filed in that case as of late October.
Judge Jasper Walker did not give a timetable for her decision on the Friday case.
As Friday was leaving the courtroom, he asked Mary Haivala, who has worked for him, "Can you call Gary and see if he can feed?"
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419