BILLINGSGAZETTE.COM — NOV. 28, 2012 — A nationally recognized horse specialist testified Wednesday at James Leachman’s animal abuse trial that unbreakable plastic identification bands should not be used on horses, especially those running loose on the range.
Missoula-based veterinarian Jenifer Gold, who taught equine science at Texas A&M University and worked for five years at horse operations along the Persian Gulf, said she would have recommended that all five Leachman horses he’s charged with abusing be euthanized.
They were suffering and in pain, she said, mostly from identification leg bands that cut into their flesh. Four of the five horses involved in this case were found dead or were humanely shot two years ago.
In January 2011, the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office charged the Billings cattle and horse breeder with five charges of misdemeanor animal cruelty. The trial started in Justice Court on Monday.
Gold said the bands are used for dairy cattle that are checked at least three times a day, not horses that can pull on the band with their teeth and tighten it. Pointing to a picture of one bloody limb, she said the injuries from this horse’s leg band were at least two months and maybe six months old, which wouldn’t have happened if they were checked daily.
“It has basically cut through the ligaments and tendons and, at one point from the looks of it, this horse may have been walking on the surface of its front leg,” she said.
Horses shown walking on three legs also need to be put down, she said, because horses need the use of four legs to stay healthy. She cited the racehorse Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006 but broke his leg in the Preakness. The broken leg was healing, but the good leg failed because of all the weight it had to carry, so he was euthanized.
Horses don’t need to wear leg bands; they can be identified by their handlers through notes and photos and familiarity, Gold testified.
In Leachman’s defense, Deputy Public Defender Roberta Drew pointed out that Gold had never visited the Home Place ranch, which the Leachman Cattle Co. used to own 16 miles east of Billings, seen the horses raised for sale under the Hairpin Cavvy brand or examined the injured horses.
Drew asked Gold if she agreed there is a natural mortality rate in horses of 2 percent, a figure set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Correct, but not over neglect … not because a horse has a leg band so tight it has to be euthanized,” she said.
Leachman has yet to start his defense in the trial. But in opening arguments and cross examination, his attorneys said Leachman’s neighbors didn’t tell him about his injured horses on the ranch that has more than 40,000 deeded and leased acres, making them hard to find.
But one of his longtime neighbors, Don Lee, testified Wednesday that he had pointed out a severely injured horse trespassing on Lee’s land and that Leachman was looking at the horse.
“It was his horse. His horses were everywhere,” Lee said.
If convicted on all five misdemeanor counts, Leachman faces a maximum of five years in jail and a $5,000 penalty.
After 40 years of ranching on Crow Reservation land east of Billings, the Leachman Cattle Co. lost ownership of 9,500 deeded acres at a July 2010 foreclosure sale to neighbors, the Stovalls.
Turk Stovall, who now manages the ranch, testified about trying to get Leachman to move his horses off the property after his family had paid $2.6 million for Leachman’s ranch, plus more than $40,000 in back taxes.
Stovall said he gave Leachman free access to the land, even though he wasn’t paying any money for its use, and was willing to use his hired hands, equipment and his barn to help Leachman hold a horse sale in the fall of 2010.
“We were begging for a plan to remove the horses,” he said.
Against the advice of his attorney, Stovall said he talked to Leachman directly in September 2010 when Leachman drove up.
The conversation about selling the horses started cordially, Stovall said. He said he was leaning on the vehicle’s mirror when Leachman reached out the window and knocked his cowboy hat off, got out and started toward him. Stovall backed up, saying, “Jim, it’s over with. We have the ranch and all of the leases.”
Leachman kept grazing his horses on the Home Place ranch during the year his cattle company had to come up with the money to buy back the foreclosed property, which didn’t occur.
The September horse sale also never happened, and as winter came the land didn’t have enough grass to support Stovall’s cows and Leachman’s 800 horses, Stovall said.
Drew questioned him about constantly moving Leachman’s horses around the ranch and why he didn’t shoot one injured horse that he found.
“You can’t shoot someone else’s property,” he said. “If we shot that horse, it would be the one horse that was worth $50,000.”