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Malnourished and plagued with parasites, the brown and white pinto was so skittish that she refused to lift her legs when veterinarians tried to treat her overgrown, cracked hooves.
But recent months have offered a new start for Special Effects, one of 17 horses seized by authorities from an East Bethel ranch last year. Since April, the mare has roamed spacious Game Farm Stables, a facility in Minnetrista with a near-spotless heated barn, plentiful meals and water, and classical music wafting from the barn's sound system.
And on Saturday, Special Effects, the centerpiece of one legal battle and among the alleged victims in 35 counts of animal cruelty against horse boarder Lowell Friday, may finally find a permanent home.
A trainer's challenge will be held at the University of Minnesota's Equine Center in St. Paul, featuring five of the horses seized by Anoka County sheriff's deputies and the Animal Humane Society last August and November. A silent auction will follow, allowing horses that were nursed to health by University of Minnesota veterinarians and nonprofit animal rescue groups to be placed with new owners.
"The trainers are competing for $9,000 in prize money, but the real winners will be the horses," said Drew Fitzpatrick, who runs the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation in Zimmerman and is more than just an interested observer.
The 500 prequalified bidders have been carefully screened. All submitted photos of their properties and facilities and have supplied information on how they will care for the horses. Fitzpatrick, who found homes (including her own ranch) for several of Friday's horses, has been given legal authority to check periodically on the horses and reclaim them if she isn't satisfied with their treatment.
In January, an Anoka County judge denied Friday's lawsuit against the Humane Society and his effort to reclaim Special Effects, whose condition he said had been grossly exaggerated by university veterinarians.
More recently, Friday's attorney, Robert Richman, has asked that 35 misdemeanor counts be dismissed because, in part, the condition of the horses had changed between the time they were seized and when the charges were filed. Some of the horses gained as much as 200 pounds under authorities' care.
Brandon Pribula, who has trained Special Effects the past four months, isn't sure how much weight the horse has gained since being seized in November. At the time, her ribs, spine, shoulders and pelvic bones protruded under her skin, according to court documents. On a scale of 1 to 9 -- 1 being grossly emaciated and 9 obese -- Special Effects was rated a 2. Eleven other of Friday's horses were rated 1 or 1.5. Friday maintained in court that Special Effects had been rated a 5 by another veterinarian just months before authorities seized her.
Pribula said Special Effects now has a 5 rating.
"When I got her, she was in good health, but scared," Pribula said. "When they first treated her hooves, they had to drug her and hold her down. She was that nervous.
"At first, she didn't want to come out of her stall. She would neigh and whinny to the other horses. But now she's comfortable."
'His ears are up'
Less than 3 miles down the road, Dr. Colleen Carter, a veterinarian, has been caring for King of Spots, a paint stallion found in emaciated condition. He was rated a 1.5. He, too, will be auctioned Saturday.
"His ears are up, his coat is shiny, he's not hiding like he was when I first got him," Carter said.
"He still has some stubborn streaks, but there's no meanness about him. He fits right in with the other boys."
The future for Special Effects, King of Spots and the other horses up for auction -- E-Z Dancer, Black Magic and Pia -- is as uncertain as the outcome of Friday's legal case, which attorneys acknowledge could result in a lengthy trial that is not likely to begin before next spring. Friday, 73, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for a 2007 offense, but vows to fight the most recent charges.
Rarely do horse mistreatment cases draw attention or occur in large metropolitan areas. But this one is an exception. Friday's case is even news in New York state, said the executive director of a horse-rescue group in Saratoga, N.Y. He has been vilified by animal rights groups, which have circulated an Internet petition against him and have driven from western Wisconsin to Anoka County to rally against him at hearings.
Some of his horses already have found homes. Crystal, a 2-year-old filly that was so weak from malnutrition that she collapsed last November when authorities attempted to load her into a trailer, was adopted months ago by a family in St. Francis.
Two of Friday's horses have been euthanized, although one's death, experts seem to agree, had nothing to do with Friday's care.
As Special Effects circled casually around a training ring this week, she seemed far removed from Friday's facility, in which authorities found accumulated manure, antiquated fencing, sharp objects and other potential health hazards, according to court documents.
Special Effects has been befriended by four other mares at Game Farm Stables, a facility owned and run by Brian Johnson the past 15 years, Pribula said. She's docile enough that Pribula has allowed his 6-year-old nephew to ride her.
"I trust her," Pribula said. "It's great that she's made it this far."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419