On Tuesday afternoon, Spirit, Lily and Sandy were happily munching hay and reveling in the attention they were receiving from volunteers at RVR Horse Rescue in Riverview.
It's a far cry from the conditions they faced just two weeks ago when RVR Horse Rescue founder Shawn Jayroe was summoned to a property in Plant City by a local veterinarian who was concerned about the condition of the pint-sized equines.
What Jayroe found enraged her.
Veterinarian Larry Britt had been called out to the property to euthanize one of the horses that, according to the owner, had fallen off a porch. When he arrived, Britt knew there was more to the story than a mere accident. All of the miniature horses were in varying states of malnutrition and neglect.
"Dr. Britt called us and we went out to the property. The horses were in horrible condition," said Jayroe. "So we convinced the owner to release all four miniature horses to us."
The owner, Pamela Belo, 48, didn't need much convincing after RVR contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Agricultural Unit, which immediately began a criminal investigation.
The investigation found that, between July 2011 and July of this year, Belo had been slowly starving two of the four miniature horses in her care.
"Belo's action caused the two horses to suffer from malnutrition over an extended period such that they lost a high percentage of body weight," according to the sheriff's office report.
A 23-year veteran of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, assigned to the Community Outreach Division, Belo was charged with one count of felony animal cruelty and one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty. She surrendered herself to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office July 16. Belo was suspended without pay and subsequently resigned.
By far, little Warrior was in the worse condition, said Jayroe. "He couldn't stand up so we literally picked him up every two hours and turned him over," said Jayroe. The volunteers at RVR Horse Rescue spent two days trying to nurse the horse back to health.
"Horses can't lie down for long periods of time because it puts too much stress on their organs," explained Jayroe.
They eventually located a rescue group in Morriston near Ocala, Beauty's Haven, that had a sling small enough to support a miniature horse. They transported Warrior to Morriston where the volunteers spent two more days nursing the 14-year-old horse before he died.
The other three miniature horses are slowly regaining their strength and health at RVR Horse Rescue thanks to the care of the volunteers and donations from the sheriff's office.
"Sheriff's deputies just came by here to drop off bags of feed and donations," said Jayroe. "They've been great, very supportive.
While grateful to have the remaining miniature horses in her care, Jayroe said she can't help but feel angry about the horses' treatment.
"It just makes me mad," she said. "Warrior suffered a long, long time. I'm happy there's been an arrest and there will be justice for Warrior. But I don't understand what possesses someone to do this to these poor horses. It's not as if miniatures eat a lot. They can live on a cup of feed a day. That's less than $10 a week to feed them. I just don't get it."
She said the other miniatures now in her charge, Sandy and her 14-month-old colt, Lily, along with 10-year-old Spirit, are doing well and she's hopeful they'll all make a full recovery.
Unfortunately, these circumstances aren't new to Jayroe, who has 42 horses on her Riverview property, half of which are being rehabilitated after being starved, abused and neglected.
Among the horses at the ranch is Kimmy who still has open sores along her back from being overridden. Rescued from the Clair-Mel area, the 30-year-old horse underwent years of abuse, said Jayroe. Then there's Apollo, who was found dumped by the side of the road. He was emaciated and missing an eye.
"We get most of our horses from the sheriff's office," said Jayroe. "They're awesome but they need more officers to investigate animal abuse."
Other horses come to RVR through tips from neighbors and passersby who see the emaciated horses and call RVR.
"We don't just take any horse in," said Jayroe. "They have to be in really poor condition."
Overseen by the rescue group's medical director, Michelle Russell, the horses are put on special diets and treated for sores and injuries. Once fully rehabilitated, they are put up for adoption. Those that can't be rehabilitated become permanent residents of RVR.
Not all of the horses make it, however.
"It's always heartbreaking when you can't save them all," said Jayroe.
Jayroe recently posted an emotional video tribute to one such horse on her website.
Stormy was rescued from Arcadia on Sept. 24, 2010. Used for barrel racing day in and day out, he was covered with saddle sores and his ribs protruded from his sides. He finally collapsed when his suspensory ligaments were torn.
No long of any use to them, the owners tied ropes to his feet and dragged him by truck out to a pasture to die.
A neighbor saw what was happening and alerted RVR Horse Rescue.
When Jayroe and Russell found Stormy, he was barely alive. One of the ropes almost severed one of his hooves.
Jayroe talked the owners into relinquishing Stormy as well as another abused pony.
"Stormy, even in his close-to-death condition, could not get up on that trailer fast enough," said Russell. "Somehow we believe he knew."
Stormy arrived at the Riverview ranch two hours later.
"It must have been a very painful ride because, as soon as he got off the trailer, he collapsed," Russell said.
"It's horrible how cruel people can be," Jayroe said. "There are nights I don't sleep thinking about how these horses have been abused."
A vet was waiting at the ranch and immediately put Stormy on antibiotics and painkillers.
At one point, the rescuers decided to euthanize him but Stormy rallied.
Afterward, he was given the run of the property and nicknamed "The Ranch Manager." However, he continued to be plagued by health problems and recently died.
"The day Stormy passed, we were all there with him," said Jayroe. "It was a beautiful day. And now Stormy continues to live on in our heart."
Her one regret is that no one was ever arrested for abusing Stormy.
"Stormy didn't get justice," she said. "We did everything we could. But those idiots are still out there doing the same thing to more horses. But we learned a lot from Stormy. Never give up."
A Passion for Horses
Jayroe calls RVR Horse Rescue "my passion and my purpose."
"This is my calling," said Jayroe. "I don't care about clothes or cars or stuff. I just want to save these beautiful animals."
A lifelong horse lover who was raised on a 1,000-acre ranch in Texas, Jayroe has been rescuing abused and neglected horses for 20 years.
"I'd rescue a horse or two at a time, but I wanted to do it on a bigger scale," she said.
So, she officially started RVR Horse Rescue nine years ago after purchasing a 40-acre wooded property with existing horse stables in Riverview.
In the years since, she's rescued dozens of horses, funding her rescue efforts with money she makes as the owner/operator of Hair Perfections salon in Temple Terrace, by boarding horses at her stables, by hosting fundraisers and through donations from the community.
The horse rescue is in the process of obtaining its federal nonprofit status, she said.
The rescue group has about 50 volunteers feed and groom the horses, muck the stables and exercise the horses.
"But we can always use more help," said Jayroe. "We really need someone to help put up fences and do repairs. "f it wasn't for our volunteers, we wouldn't be able to do the amount of rescue work that we do."
Jayroe is also seeking sponsors for the horses.
"Donations are gladly accepted, and we don't just mean money," Jayroe said. "We're always thrilled when someone drops off a bag of feed or a bale of hay for the horses."
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