CLINTON, Maine — Some of the horses at Fair Play Farm & Stables in Clinton are in tough shape.
There’s one recovering from broken front legs and another healing from torn groin muscles. Both have needed ropes and a pulley system mounted to the rafters to help them stand. There’s a blind horse and another that was born with one eye.
Among the 47 horses at the farm Tuesday, at least a few were visibly malnourished. The condition of those animals has prompted widespread outcry and a state investigation, but the owners of the farm say it’s all the result of a small group of people making a lot of noise.
“There’s no problem here,” said Brett Ingraham, who started the Tardiff Road farm about five months ago with his wife, Alexis. “Anyone who wants to come see for themselves is welcome. We have nothing to hide.”
To finance their operation on the leased farm, the Ingrahams said, they buy and sell horses, they board some, and they offer riding lessons and other programs.
The Ingrahams said the poor condition of some of their herd is the result of their willingness to take in almost any horse, whatever its condition. Still, they are accused of neglecting their animals.
The state’s animal welfare program is investigating Fair Play Farm, and the Animal Welfare Advisory Council is scheduled to discuss the conditions of the animals at a hearing this morning in Augusta. Complaints have been to the state, prompting visits by animal welfare investigators and state veterinarians, according to Norma Worley, who directs the animal welfare program.
“I really can’t say a lot,” said Worley on Tuesday. “We have been there several times. The owners are cooperating with us.” Worley said District Attorney Evert Fowle has instructed her not to release “any information on our investigation.” Fowle did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Meris J. Bickford is one of the people who has filed a complaint against Fair Play Farm. Bickford is an attorney for the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals and a member of the Animal Welfare Advisory Council. Despite those roles, she said, she didn’t visit the farm earlier this month as an animal rights activist, but as a lifelong horse lover looking to buy an animal.
“When I left Fair Play Farm, my first telephone call was to the animal welfare program in Augusta,” said Bickford. “I drove straight there and at [Worley’s] request I memorialized my observations in a report and submitted it to her the next morning.”
Bickford said she saw several horses that were “shockingly thin,” inadequate shelter for the herd and some animals “covered in rain rot,” a matting of the coat that is caused by exposure to weather and not enough grooming.
“There are horses hundreds of pounds underweight,” she said. “You don’t have to be a veterinarian to see it. All you have to be is alive.”
Maddy Gray of Brunswick runs an equine enthusiast Web site called NickerNews.net. Gray has posted articles and photographs on the site under headlines such as “Foul Play at Fair Play” and “Starving Clinton Horses,” among others.
“Of course, the horse community has responded in a clamorous way,” Gray said. “If the Ingrahams were to say ‘Yes, we need help,’ there’s probably 50 people ready to provide foster homes, most of whom would not require reimbursement.” Gray alleges that since the situation at Fair Play Farm came to light, the Ingrahams have been trucking horses off the property “to conceal the evidence.”
Statements like that one will come back to haunt Gray and Bickford, and others who have disparaged the farm, said the Ingrahams.
“People are going to get sued,” said Brett Ingraham. “This is just three or four people whose lies got around and now it’s everywhere.”
The Ingrahams say they take in as many as 10 horses a week, the majority of which are quickly sold to new homes. Alexis Ingraham said the farm has sold 50 horses this winter. Some of the horses they take in come in groups, such as retired racehorses from Florida. Others come from owners who couldn’t care for them. Some ar-rive in terrible condition.
“They don’t turn around overnight,” said Alexis Ingraham. “We’ve got five or six skinny horses, and we’re probably going to keep them.”
The Ingrahams said anyone who makes an appointment is welcome to see Fair Play Farm by calling 649-9547 or 649-9541.
Gray said her ire regarding Fair Play Farm is fed partly by what she called the state’s slow response to past incidents. Worley responded that her office has just four investigators covering Maine, handling more than 800 animal welfare complaints a year. Of those, fewer than 30 complaints a year result in court action.
“We do prioritize every complaint that comes down based on what we’re told, and we try to respond within 24 hours,” she said. “We have four humane agents in the entire state, and they’re probably covering 600 square miles each.”
State Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, aside from being a Holstein farmer, is the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. He said the committee has requested weekly updates on the Fair Play Farm situation, which he sees as a symptom of a larger problem.
“Some of these horses were taken from someone else who was abandoning them,” said Nutting, who said most of the state’s horse rescue farms are full as a result. “The thing that frustrates me the most here is the number of people who did not think through seriously whether or not they could afford to get a couple of horses last year. That isn’t this farm’s fault.”