Passion for horses overrides online criticisms for Houlton woman

8 years ago
HOULTON, Maine — It has been a tumultuous couple of years for horse lover Jessica York of Houlton.

The owner of Dowry Farms on the Houlton-Littleton town line on U.S. Route 1, York has been the subject of online attacks through social media websites for the past year. Claims range from animal neglect and abuse, inadequate shelter, insecure containment and that she simply has too many animals for her property.

York has about 85 Caspian and Fjord horses that freely roam a 16-acre parcel of land. In the winter time, however, those horses are kept in a smaller area so as not to destroy the grass during Maine’s “mud season.”

Several online groups have tried to force local and state authorities to seize the animals. Those claims have generated numerous telephone calls to the Houlton Police Department, Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and the Maine State Police over the past two years, from people across the country.

The complaints escalated earlier this year when a horse escaped and was struck and killed by a passing vehicle in the early morning hours of Jan. 23 and also flare up any time there is harsh weather.

According to Lt. Brian Harris of the Maine State Police Troop F division, the incident where the horse was struck was investigated and found to be accidental.

“That investigation is closed,” he said. “[It was], just a typical accident, nothing unusual about it. Just an unfortunate incident of the horse getting out and being struck in the roadway.”

Houlton Police Chief Joe McKenna said he was told that the necropsy performed by the state revealed that the horse that had no signs of disease and had food in its belly at the time of its death.

“There were no signs of malnutrition, neglect or anything else,” he said.

John Bott, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Animal Welfare, said Friday that his department would not be able to provide any information about the condition of York’s horses, nor could they give any specifics about any of the online accusations.

“Because it’s an open investigation, we cannot comment,” Bott said.

Chief McKenna and Sheriff Darrell Crandall of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office both toured the property about a year ago. The sheriff’s office was brought in because part of the property is in Houlton and part is in Littleton. McKenna said he noted some areas where the fence needed attention and those repairs have been made.

“We looked at the horses, and I am no expert, but I have been around them,” McKenna said. “I looked for the obvious issues of bones sticking out, bloated bellies and bad teeth. I did not observe any of those conditions.”

He said there were a couple of animals that were in a designated area that had some health issues and those horses had been examined by a veterinarian and were receiving individual care.

 

PT NE HORSES6 13 16 17358624

Pioneer Times  photo/Joseph Cyr
WATER — Several water troughs are located around Jessica York’s property, with a hose keeping running water flowing.

“There are hay bales and troughs with water,” McKenna said. “She [York] has had a state licensed vet come in and check the animals. And they have been certified as healthy, with the exception of a couple.”

York stated she believes the times when horses have escaped were because they were purposely let out by individuals seeking to get her in trouble with the law. She also doesn’t agree with her detractors that the horses need to have a completely enclosed facility, such as a barn, to provide shelter from the elements.

York added many of those individuals making online comments about her are likely not aware of the differences Fjords and Caspians have from thoroughbred horses.

“The Fjords and the Caspians are native pony stock,” she said. “That means they have survived semi-feral, on their own. It gives them a huge advantage. Other breeds like thoroughbreds are engineered breeds that have been created for certain activities, like speed. There is a huge difference there. My horses don’t like to be inside a barn.”

 

PT NE HORSES7 13 16 17358636

Pioneer Times photo/Joseph Cyr
FOOD SUPPLY — A large amount of straw and hay is on-hand to feed the roughly 85 horses on Jessica York’s property.

Last fall, a large “lean-to” was created with the help of volunteers to provide some shelter for the horses. Christian Putnam was one of the primary people to spearhead its construction, York said. In addition, a double-fence was erected to reduce the possibility of animals escaping on their own.

Both the Fjords and Caspians are a hearty breeds, able to withstand the harsh climates of Maine, according to York. Despite its construction, most of the horses did not seek shelter from the elements even on the coldest of days this past winter, York said.

 

PT NE HORSES3 13 16 17358618Pioneer Times photo/Joseph Cyr
SEPARATED — Some of the more rambunctious young male horses are kept separate from the females during the spring mating season.

Lifelong passion

For York, caring for horses has been a passion of hers for as long as she can remember. She has owned and operated Dowery Farm for several years. The Caspian side of the farm is called Aroostook Caspian Stud, which is the breeding portion of her business.

“We really are not too many generations out from being a horse society,” York said. “My horses are not beasts of burden. They are companion animals. And that transition is hard for some people to make.”

She acknowledged that some groups must still use horses in a working capacity, but for many a horse is viewed more as a pet in the same way people look at a cat or dog.

“It’s a big difference, and part of the reason why I won’t sell $500 ponies to just anyone,” she said. “I don’t want them to then be sold to another person and another before going to an auction. These animals are a family herd. We do occasionally sell horses or gift them, but we always try to do it in pairs or groups.”

York said she grew up dreaming of one day owning a horse, “but my dad wouldn’t get me a pony.”

She got her first experience with Fjord mares in 1999, while in Nome, Alaska.

 

PT NE HORSES4 13 16 17358620Pioneer Times photo/Joseph Cyr
SHELTER — Jessica York walks with a Norwegian Fjord near the large lean-to structure that was erected for her animals last fall.

“I saw this beautiful Fjord with a small child on its back int the middle of a blizzard,” she said. “The animal and child were perfectly happy to be out in the blizzard. That’s when I thought, ‘I need some of those.’”

And when her stepsister became involved with the Pony Club, back in 2000, York said she had what some would call an epiphany.

“I was a young adult at that time and I could see potential for such a wonderful dynamic between horses and kids,” York said. “I saw the potential for kids to learn a lot of life lessons through horses. So I really wanted to do something with kids and horses.”

 
PT NE HORSES2 13 16 17358616Pioneer Times photo/Joseph Cyr
NEWBORN — A newly-born Caspian horse feeds from its mother Saturday morning.

She began researching which breed of horse she wanted to explore working with and decided to purchase two Fjord mares to start her budding mission to expose children to horses. The size of those horses proved to be a bit intimidating for younger children, so she began looking for other breeds when she stumbled upon the Caspians.

“I talked to a few people who knew about these animals and thought they might fit the bill,” she said. “These horses are from a mountainous region and are really hardy. Plus, when they are foals, they are about eye-to-eye with an 8-year-old.”

She opened her doors to home-schooled children in the area to come spend some time with the animals and that venture quickly grew as word of mouth spread about the concept. York, with the help of a friend, drafted what she called a “natural horsemanship program for children,” which was designed to boost a child’s confidence and create healthy boundaries. The experience was free to local children.

It was a win-win situation, as area children were able to be exposed to horses, while the animals were able to adjust to human contact, York said.

York said things always went smoothly at her farm, with no cases of animals getting loose or allegations of animal neglect. That changed, however, when she terminated an employee back in 2014. Almost immediately, the online attacks began, she said, and the horses escaped their penned area on a number of occasions. York declined to name that former employee.

 

PT NE HORSES5 13 16 17358622 (1)

Pioneer Times photo/Joseph Cyr
CURIOUS— Along with horses, Jessica York also has goats and chickens on her farm.

“At the time, the children’s program was doing really well,” York said. “We were growing by about 10 kids per year without any sort of advertising. When we stopped, we were up to about 30 kids.”

York said she worked with 10 children for two-hour sessions every Saturday, doing three rounds in the day.

“The kids would work with the weanlings, which are the babies, and they would learn the basics of teaching them leading and lifting of their feet,” she said.”When the kids got comfortable with that, they would move on to an adult Caspian, taking them through ground work and mounting them. We did a lot of agility stuff, going through obstacles. It was a lot of work, but fun.”

She has since ceased doing this practice due to the harassment her family has received. Some photographs of children interacting with the horses were used on social media websites aimed at disparaging York’s name.

“That was really upsetting,” she said. “The kids absolutely didn’t need to get pulled into this.”

 

Complaints

York has been the target of a number of online social media attacks claiming the animals are malnourished and unhealthy. Other complaints stem from the animals getting out of their fenced area and roaming along U.S. Route 1 or other areas.

McKenna said he questions the legitimacy and credibility of many of the posts and images that have been shared on the Internet about the horses. The Houlton Police Department first became aware of the situation in 2012, which was before Chief McKenna’s time in Houlton. McKenna became chief in January, 2015.

Kevin Upton was the animal control officer at that time and when he left the post, CJ Virgie took over as the Houlton ACO. Virgie was in that position when McKenna came to the HPD. After Virgie left, the role fell to the town’s Code Enforcement Officer, Kevin Tingley.

McKenna said he started doing his own research, particularly reviewing all of the allegations on the Maine Equine Facebook page. McKenna said from the multiple conversations he has had with York and the town’s former animal control officers, the individuals who originally started the online attacks on York were former employees.

“Apparently there was a falling out over something and now it is a personal vendetta,” he said. “It’s not always just about the horses.”

“It’s been very personal,” York said. “Most of the people saying all these things have never been here. I have always been very welcoming to people who wanted to come here and experience the animals. But I feel a little different about that now.”

York claims she has had tails cut off her horses and had fencers removed allowing the animals to escape. York added she has refrained from responding to most of the online attacks.

“None of it is really worth responding to,” she said. “I think some people are starting to see it is not really about the horses. It’s personal attacks. If I didn’t have horses, they would probably be on me for how I raise my children. In some cases, they already are.”

 

Livestock classification

York has often wondered if there would be such an uproar over her property if she owned cattle, sheep or other farm animals, instead of horses. McKenna said from the town’s perspective, they are viewing the case as the animals classified as livestock.

“We took the position, that the town ordinance has one paragraph that deals with livestock,” he said. “It basically says you must keep the animals out of the road and off the public way.”

The town’s ordinance for livestock reads, “Domestic livestock and fowl shall be restrained so as to prevent their entering any public way unless under complete control of the owner or to prevent their unauthorized entering onto any public or private property. When such domestic livestock and fowl are found to be in violation of this section, the Animal Control Officer, or Houlton Police Department, may give written notice of such violation to the owner of such domestic livestock or fowl.”

If the animals are found in the roadway, York could be subjected to a fine. There is nothing in the town’s ordinance pertaining to care, conditions or how many animals can be kept on a property.

“We are going to do what the town ordinance requires us to do, because the state is already handling the case,” McKenna said.

York stated on a couple of occasions, family members have observed people coming onto her property and going up to her fence to coax the horses over to them, with what she believes were intentions of letting them out.

Chrissy McFarland of the State Department of Animal Welfare has investigated her property, York said. McFarland has been working with York for the past two years, to correct some of the issues at her farm. The state regularly comes to her property every few weeks to keep up to date on any concerns that may be pressing, York said.

“I welcomed the state in because I had absolutely nothing to hide,” York said.

Fecal samples of the animals have been collected to test for worms and a farrier was called in to examine the feet of all the horses. York said some of the horses did have worms, but were not “overloaded” with them.

“I have never been out of compliance,” York said. “They have checked a lot, but I have never been given any tickets or anything else. We do talk about management things here at the farm.”

The town’s animal control officer has issued a couple of warnings for the horses getting out, but no formal charges have ever been levied against York, the chief said.

McKenna stated the town’s former animal officer began building a case to have the local police seize the horses via an ex parte order. McKenna said he was not comfortable with his department doing so, since the state’s was not asking them to do so. He said he met with the district attorney and McFarland to organize their plan.

“It needed to be a coordinated effort,” McKenna said. “If we were to go in and do an ex parte order and the state of Maine’s experts say she [York] is meeting the state’s requirements, we were going to look like fools. She has met all the requirements of the town in terms of business licensing.”

In November, at the state’s request, the entire herd was examined by a licensed veterinarian, McKenna said. No violations were found. A barn directly behind her house has about eight stalls, where any animals that are sick can be cared for.

York also disputes the accusations she is an animal hoarder.

“I don’t know what makes a person an animal hoarder,” she said. “I think it could be that those people won’t let their animals go to other people. I don’t have a problem with my horses going to the right people.”

York admitted the thought of getting rid of all of her horses has crossed her mind, but she values the life lessons the animals give to her children.

“I am very dedicated and devoted to my animals,” she said. “This [care] is a seven-day-a-week job.”

An online petition through change.org ( https://www.change.org/p/houlton-police-department-maine-animal-welfare-agency-maine-dept-of-agriculture-stop-severe-caspian-horse-neglect/u/13084260) seeking to have the animals removed from the property was started in September 2015 by Global Conservation Group, a Wisconsin-based animal welfare group. As of March 28, the petition has 12,175 signatures.

McKenna said a large amount of the information that appears online was either outdated or inaccurate.

“The problem with all the stuff on Facebook, is they are using photos from three or four years ago, saying those are the conditions today,” he said. “That is absolutely false. There is shelter that more than exceeds what the state mandates. It was well-constructed.”

McKenna added many of those who post on social media site have not offered to help her care for the animals.

“Not one person, as far as I know, from the group that has been attacking her online has offered to come and help with the animals,” he said.

McKenna said his office received numerous phone calls a day, at one point, from people all over the country asking what the local police are going to do about the horses. Several requests for documentation have been received, but McKenna said his department would not release any private information about an ongoing case. The majority of those individuals have never been to Houlton or seen the farm first-hand. McKenna added he has received threats from several of the online animal rights groups demanding action.

“My response is, ‘We are not going to do anything,” he said. “She [York] is in compliance with the state law. People may not like those state laws, but for the state of Maine, she is meeting all the requirements. Some horse people probably wouldn’t want their horses to be in those conditions, but it is not neglect.”