Vet’s bill for rescued miniature horses approaches $1.5 million

A herd of rescued miniature horses in southern Minnesota is growing, and so is the bill for its care.

Now the 72 horses have expanded to 78, with the birth of six foals this spring.

And the bill for two years of care and feeding is nearly $1.5 million, at $25 per day per horse. To put that in perspective, it’s more than Watonwan County — where the horses were rescued — spends in a year on debt service, solid waste collection and libraries combined.

Two years ago, authorities seized 72 horses from a pony farm in Odin, where they were being mistreated. They were sent to Goldmount Veterinary Center in Sherburn, Minn., where veterinarian Shirley Kittleson cared for them.

But the rescue mission turned into a legal quarrel when it came time to pay the vet’s bill. And as the courtroom battle goes on, the herd has remained on her sprawling farm.

Last year, Kittleson filed suit in Martin County District Court against Watonwan County and the Animal Humane Society, seeking to collect what she says she’s owed. The county and the Humane Society sued Michael Johnson, the pony farm owner. Meanwhile, Kittleson is holding on to the horses until the issue is settled and said she doesn’t think she’s taking advantage of anyone by waiting for the fight to end.

“I don’t think anyone else could take care of them for any less than we do,” she said. “We’ve got the facilities for it, and it takes a lot of feed and time to take care of them.” She said she hired a full-time farmhand just to look after the herd.

Kittleson said she’s tried to keep “the boys and girls” separated, “but we had one little stud get out with the mares for a short period of time and we’ve ended up with six babies.

“They’re very cute, but we really didn’t need six more.”

The horses were seized by a Humane Society investigator in June 2018 from Johnson’s pony farm, about 25 miles from Kittleson’s place. The investigator arrived at the farm with a Watonwan County sheriff’s deputy after getting a tip about mistreatment of the herd.

Many of the horses had severely overgrown hoofs, which had curled up and made walking difficult and painful. Investigators also found several dead horses on Johnson’s property.

He was convicted of two counts of animal neglect and sentenced to a year of probation and a stayed term of 90 days in jail.

In court documents, the Humane Society has said it paid for the initial medical treatment of the animals but shouldn’t have to pay for ongoing care. Watonwan County’s position is that Johnson should pay. And Johnson claims that once the animals were taken from him, he was no longer responsible for them.

All the parties in the case recently went to mediation to try to settle the claims, but no agreement was reached, according to Cory Genelin, Kittleson’s attorney.

“The issue has boiled down to the fair market value of boarding the horses and who’s responsible,” said Steven Sunde, the attorney representing Watonwan County. The county and the Humane Society have asked that Kittleson’s lawsuit against them be dismissed, Sunde said, adding that a ruling on that request is expected within the next 90 days.

Meanwhile, the herd remains on the farm, eating hay and grain and running in the pasture.

Kittleson said she’s grown attached to some of the horses, but not enough to want to keep them around.

“We’ve got too many of our own,” she said. “We really need to find them homes.”

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