A small herd of horses stops grazing and looks up at a pair of strangers hanging onto a fence at Samuell Farm. To the city dweller's eye, they look well-treated. But they aren't, according to a Dallas Park and Recreation Department committee. The horses, part of a horse-riding concession that operates in the Dallas parks facility at Samuell Farm, have become something of an embarrassment to the city. During the summer, they were found without food and water on more than one occasion, and the herd, which is visible from Highway 80 near Mesquite, was neglected in other ways, city officials say.
Members of the park committee say they have "grave concerns" about the horse-riding concession, operated by Don Ross Nabb Productions. In an October 18 report delivered to Paul Dyer, executive director of the department, the committee cited 17 problems they found with the horse concessionaire. The report is accompanied by more than two dozen photographs that purport to show neglected horses and poor conditions at the stables in September.
"The information we reviewed indicates that the Samuell Farm facilities...are not being properly cared for by the Concessionaire...the Concessionaire's animal care does not meet the care standards of Samuell Farm," the report states. "...We unanimously recommend that the [park] board not enter into any long-term agreement with this concessionaire and that the board terminate the interim agreement as soon as legally possible," it concludes.
The report was produced by the Samuell Farm Animal Care Advisory Committee, a group which includes two large-animal veterinarians, a horse cruelty investigator with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and a representative of the Dallas Animal Shelter Commission. The 10-member committee formed last year after animal rights activists leveled allegations of animal neglect at city-owned and operated Samuell Farm. The committee most recently recommended that all of the animals be removed from the city's farm (See "Animal-free Farm," November 16) and that the farm's overall direction be changed. The horse concession is located across the parking lot from the entrance to Samuell Farm and provides revenue to the city by selling trail rides (at $20 per hour per person) on the farm property.
In fiscal year 1999-2000, Don Ross Nabb Productions paid the city a total of $7,835 for using park land to operate the concession, says Sally Rodriguez, a park district manager. Don Ross has been operating at the site since June 1999, and its contract with the city is up at the end of the year.
The committee's report says horses escaped 11 times "through inadequate fencing" from June to August; that horses were impounded by the Dallas County Sheriff's Department on two occasions; that horses were found with no food or water; that their pastures were overgrazed; that the horses' hoofs were not maintained; and that the concession didn't even have a permit to operate under Texas law. The report was generated after members of the public and Samuell Farm staffers complained to the city about what they saw at the horse concession, says Skip Trimble, a committee member. "Our report, if you look at it, is based on documented incidents of animals getting on the highway, horses getting into the other farm area where there's children and patrons. We've got pictures of no food. We've got pictures of no water. We're just reporting what we found."
Trimble also says a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector found that hay for the horses was contaminated, and a representative of the Texas A&M Agricultural Extension office who is on the committee says the horses were fed so little they had overgrazed their pasture. The committee's report does not say how long horses went without food or water, but Trimble says, "...it was numerous times that the water troughs were found empty. I didn't go into the pens or anything, but you could see the horses were malnourished just by looking at their coats. The last time we were out there, there had been a bunch of rain, and they were standing in the mud and slop. There was no dry parcel for them."
Carolyn Bray, an assistant director of the Dallas park department, says the city is reviewing its entire mission at Samuell Farm, and it remains unclear if the future Samuell Farm will have a place for horses and trail rides. "We are allowing [the contract] to run out, run its course, and really slow down and take a hard look at what we need to do at the farm to assess the potential of the farm," she says.
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Don Ross, chief executive officer of Don Ross Nabb Productions, denies that any horses were neglected at Samuell Farm. What's more, he says, city staff essentially invented the charges after he offered to take over the beleaguered farm. Those who worked at Samuell Farm feared they would lose their jobs if Don Ross Nabb Productions privatized Samuell Farm, so they lashed out at him, he says. "When we made that offer, everything started coming from every direction. Obviously, that would make a lot of people lose their jobs," he says. "Up until then we didn't have any problems."
Ross does admit his company didn't have a permit. "I didn't know we had to have a permit," he says. "It's a new law...It all gets down to what's good for the animal."
Mesquite Police Department records appear to back up at least one part of Ross' defense of his horse-riding operation. While the Mesquite police have a record of a loose horse from Samuell Farm getting hit by two cars and dying at the scene, the incident occurred in February 1998, which is more than a year before Don Ross' company took over the concession.
Ross says he can discount every other allegation, and says any minor problems were speedily corrected. A committee picture of a horse with its ribs sticking out is actually a photograph of a pregnant thoroughbred. The horse only appeared undernourished, he says. A picture of an empty horse trough is cropped so that a nearby full trough cannot be seen. Horses did escape the pasture, but the city was supposed to maintain the fences, not the horse concessionaire, he says. Other allegations, such as a lack of decent food and the horse getting hit, are just flat-out lies, he says. "All those things are taken out of context...There hasn't been any horse abuse. There hasn't been horses that haven't been fed. There hasn't been horses that haven't been watered. Nothing like that."