Emaciated horses eating bark off trees. Abandoned horses tied to telephone poles. Horses subsisting on feces, walking among carcasses.
As the economy continues to falter, law enforcement officers in Kentucky and throughout the country are seeing major increases in the number of unwanted and neglected horses, some abandoned on public land, others left to starve by their owners.
The situation has renewed the debate over whether reopening slaughterhouses in the United States -- the last ones closed in 2007 -- would help address the problem. Some states, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, for example, are looking at ways to bring slaughterhouses back.
An estimated 100,000 horses a year are shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, prompting Congress to consider a bill that would ban the sale and transport of horses for human consumption outside the country. But Arkansas, Georgia and eight other states are against such a ban, saying owners need affordable options for unwanted horses.
recently in Montana, the Legislature approved a bill allowing the construction of horse-slaughter facilities. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who supports reinstating the slaughterhouse, vetoed a provision that limited appeals by opponents.
But Keith Dane, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes horse slaughter, said that the Montana bill was unnecessary because horse slaughter was already legal in the state, and that it would essentially quash the opposition's right to try to stop the opening of a slaughterhouse for environmental and other reasons.
"We think it's unconstitutional and probably a handout to the horse slaughter industry," Dane said.
Also unresolved in the overall debate is whether the closing of slaughterhouses contributed to the growing numbers of unwanted horses, driving down the price of the animals to as little as $50 each at auction.
"Bottom line is you have to separate the animal from the pet," said state Rep. Edward Butcher, a Republican who wrote the Montana bill. "No one has to send a horse to a processing plant. It's just an option for horses that are unusable. And it's much more humane than leaving them there to starve to death."
According to the Humane Society, the United States sent 98,363 horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter last year. As of March 28, 17,758 horses had been sent to those two countries for slaughter this year.
The rising abandonment of horses is straining law enforcement officers, who, while facing tightened budgets, must learn about the animal and the laws that govern them. Dealing with the legal aspect of neglect can be even trickier. In Kentucky, where horses are a way of life, cruelty laws are vague and jurisdiction is left to each of the state's 120 counties, many of which work with a humane society that shelters seized animals.
Mark Arenson, an animal control officer in Kentucky's Calloway County who has spent his career investigating cruelty to dogs and cats, was among 15 animal-control agents, sheriffs and shelter directors who took a three-day, hands-on class at Murray State University offered by the Kentucky Horse Council, a nonprofit organization.
On a bright March afternoon, Arenson learned to feel for protruding ribs, a sign of starvation; to look at the hooves, which should be short and trimmed or the horse will limp; and to be careful when approaching from behind, because a startled horse might kick.
"I don't know much about horses," Arenson said. "A lot of this is new information for me."
Brandon Gallimore, a deputy sheriff in Calloway County, about 100 miles northwest of Nashville, found himself in a pasture filled with horses, checking for distinct marks like brands and hair whorls to identify the horses in court proceedings.
Later he stood inside a small stall, where he gingerly walked around a horse with his hand on its flank as a warning before he lifted its tail.
"You get a little skittish when you're around a 1,200-pound horse," Gallimore said. "But now I know what you can learn and what you can get away with by watching their eyes."
There are no firm statistics on how many horses have been abandoned here or nationally, but the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it had been overwhelmed with reports of neglected horses and had given rescue facilities its year's worth of emergency hay in just two months.
Where numbers are kept, they are startling. Officials in Nevada said 63 horses were abandoned on state land last year, compared with 11 in 2007. In Sweetwater County, Wyo., where abandoned horses were previously unheard of, 20 were recovered last year. And in Texas, about 170 horses were rescued from a ranch in Hill County last month in what the authorities called one of largest livestock seizures in state history.
The authorities there said they believed that the owner had bought hundreds of horses cheaply and was planning on selling them when the market turned. "They were putting the minimal amount of money in to keep the horses alive," said Clint Ward of the Hill County Sheriff's Office.
Many states are strengthening their animal cruelty statutes. The Oregon Senate passed a bill in March making horse abandonment a crime, and Arizona legislators are considering a public listing of equine rescue facilities.
Lori Neagle, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, a nonprofit group based in Nicholasville that tries to find homes for unwanted horses, said, "Every day, it's phone calls saying, 'I can't afford to keep them, I'm losing my farm.'"
Although horses were always a financial stretch for Andy and Rose Cardinale of Swanville, Maine, they found a way to make do until last year, when they lost their business and their home.
The Cardinales took two of their five horses to the Last Chance Ranch, an equine rescue facility in Troy, Maine; two others are being cared for elsewhere, and the third, a stallion, they are struggling to keep. Cardinale has taken on part-time work as a police dispatcher.
Another desperate owner forced to surrender a horse she can no longer afford is Erin O'Brien, a 24-year-old student from Corinna, Maine.
"It was either pay for my schooling and better myself or keep him," O'Brien said of her horse, Amos. O'Brien stood on a frigid Maine night in Amos' stall, gently stroking his head and kissing him.
"I love you, baby," she said.