HOLLANDALE, MINN. – For two years, Ann Bowman did everything she could for Spot, her favorite horse.
She put a boot on Spot’s badly cracked hoof. She medicated it and gave the 10-year-old mare feed supplements to help the hoof knit back together. She put the horse on pain pills.
But Spot didn’t make it.
A visitor reported Bowman to the Animal Humane Society, saying Spot was mistreated and in pain. Last month, a Humane Society investigator paid a visit to Bowman’s Freeborn County farm about 95 miles south of the Twin Cities, where she raises and breeds 80 to 90 horses.
Days later, a veterinarian euthanized Spot, a great-granddaughter of the first horse Bowman ever owned.
Now Bowman claims that the Humane Society is trying to push her out of business. Widowed and 75 years old, Bowman said she’s being targeted because of her age.
The investigator “kept telling me I was old,” Bowman said. “Over and over and over.”
After Spot was put down, “I got so depressed,” she said, breaking into tears. “I’m so afraid he wants to take all my horses.”
That’s not what’s happening, said Keith Streff, who investigated the complaint against Bowman. Spot needed to be put down, he said, but nobody is trying to take Bowman’s herd.
Her case raises the question of what can happen when animal lovers aren’t realistic about their ability to care for their creatures, said Streff, who’s been a Humane Society investigator for 33 years.
“We have an elderly woman living alone on a farm ... and managing 90 horses by herself,” Streff said. “That’s not to say it can’t be done.
“When you look at the totality of the circumstances, that’s a situation that’s riding the precipice. You have one hiccup and there’s trouble.”
Overall, there are no grossly substandard conditions on Bowman’s farm right now that would warrant aggressive action against her, Streff said. He likened his discussions with her to the difficult conversations families have with grandparents when it might be time to take away the car keys.
“I like her,” he said. “I like feisty farm people. She’s just so caught up in the emotion.
“We are just trying to explain to her the grandpa theory, and she’s not buying it.”
Cautious optimism from vet
Bowman always loved horses. As a child growing up in Austin, Minn., she’d build corrals out of wood and branches to hold her imaginary horses. At age 15, she got her first real horse, riding her bike 6 miles to a farm where she worked in exchange for the animal.
She married and in 1968 began raising quarter horses. Her husband, Robert, died in a farm accident in 2017.
Since then, Bowman has lived alone on about 300 acres of land. She has a son and grandson in the area who help out, but, as she describes it, she does most of the day-to-day ranch work herself. Bowman also teaches history in the alternative learning program of the Austin Public Schools and holds a law degree.
Her legal training taught her the importance of documentation of her conversation with Streff.
“I’m an attorney, so the first thing I did was go into the house and write a journal of what he said,” Bowman recounted, showing her handwritten notes. “He said I shouldn’t be breeding any of my horses because I’m too old. He said, ‘You should be gardening.’ ”
Kathy Mock, a Humane Society spokeswoman, said conversations with an investigator can be difficult and emotional.
“I think she felt super bad about euthanizing the animal and she kind of blamed Keith for it,” Mock said. “Keith tries to give them ideas, not about what their career should be, but whether they are in appropriate condition.
“Her intent isn’t bad. But sometimes when you have that many animals, it’s hard.”
Bowman said the veterinarian who examined Spot was “amazed” at how well the mare’s foot had healed. But Dr. Michael Dierenfeld said that’s not the message he delivered.
“What I told her is that perhaps with feet trimming and an anti-inflammatory painkiller, it could get a little better,” said Dierenfeld, who practices in Northwood, Iowa, about 25 miles south of Bowman’s farm. “But I told her it would never get back to being a sound horse. It would always have some pain.”
The decision to euthanize Spot was left to Bowman; she ultimately agreed to put the horse down, and Dierenfeld gave the humane injection.
What about Bowman’s ability to tend her entire herd? Dierenfeld expressed a cautious opinion that, for now, she’s doing all right. He examined about 20 other horses on her home property and said they were in good shape. He didn’t see the 60 or 70 other animals held on several separate parcels of land Bowman owns in the area.
“Is she capable of taking care of them? At this point, I would say she was,” Dierenfeld said. “But it’s summertime. Things go by themselves in the summertime. You don’t have the cold and the extremes, you don’t have to worry about getting water to them.
“At this point, to me, it looked like she is capable of caring for them. At least, the ones that I saw.”
Runs in the family
Bowman said she’s fit and fine. People in her family “live to be 100,” she said, noting that she had a great-aunt in Montana who managed a cattle ranch and a horse sale barn well into her 80s.
“I’m not a town person,” she said. “I clean my own stalls, I give my own vaccinations, I give my own tetanus shots.
“When you’re a rancher, you take care of things yourself!” she said emphatically.
She’s often lonely, Bowman added, and caring for the horses gives her a sense of purpose.
Streff agreed that Bowman isn’t doing anything wrong at the moment. Euthanizing Spot, he said, was “95 percent of my objective, and the rest we can work with.”
His job is to enforce the law, Streff said, not to be a counselor. But it’s difficult to assess the present without also looking to the future, particularly when dealing with older animal owners.
If something does go wrong on the Bowman farm, he said, “I will be in the position of reacting to a problem rather than preventing it.” Imagine a scenario, he said, when “it’s 40 below and there are dead and dying horses all over the farm. And people will be, ‘Why didn’t you do something about it?’
“Just once in my career, I would like to work toward a solution rather than a problem.”