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2012-07-05

'What happened to Cowboy was evil'

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Those who love and respect horses will find the image of the horse pictured to the right shocking and emblazoned in their minds forever.

To think that someone entrusted with caring for the health of a horse could perpetrate such a heinous mutilation is simply beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, this atrocity occurred at a dude ranch in Bandera County, and, according to local law enforcement, no one can - or will - be held accountable for the abuse.

The following article was compiled from interviews with Samantha Mixon, DVM, who has a practice with a primary focus on equine dentistry, "Strait from the Horse's Mouth," in Kendall County; Roger Guerra, current manager of the Running R Guest Ranch, Inc., located on FM 1077; and Sgt. Shane Merritt of the Bandera County Sheriff's Office.

Mixon contacted the Bandera County Courier Wednesday, June 27, about a case of animal cruelty she had discovered in April. As she explained, Mixon contacted the newspaper "out of desperation." That same day, she also filed a complaint with the BCSO, and an investigation, headed up by Merritt, began immediately. For the most part, Merritt corroborated what Mixon had learned about the incident.

'Pain & suffering'

Interestingly, the only point of contention is whether the horse - known as Cowboy - had been subjected to "pain and suffering" when an ostensible equine dental practitioner had used an electric power tool to carve the words "Suck it" into the horse's central incisors during a routine tooth floating procedure.

Each letter was about 2 millimeters deep.

According to Merritt, at the same time, another horse had the initials "RR" carved into his central incisors.

Perusing the photographs, she explained, "The black inside the carved out area is stain. That means the enamel was ground down to expose the dentin. Dentin is not as hard as enamel. It stains easily and contains sensitive nerve endings."

According to the sheriff's report and an account by Guerra, the cruel incident appears to have occurred approximately two years ago. At that time, Running R co-owner Diane Migliaccio appartently hired Nick Coates of San Angelo, a non-veterinarian dental lay practitioner (NVDLP) to take care of the dental needs of the ranch's horses. Coates also did equine chiropractic work at Migliaccio's request, Merritt said.

Unlicensed NVDLPs are not regulated by any state or federal agency in many states. However, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 414 that will regulate NVDLPs in Texas effective Sept. 1. Merritt noted that Coates has also been named in a civil lawsuit that arose from a botched dental procedure on horses in Bandera County.

Power tool drilling

Confirming the date of the mutilation, Mixon said, "As reported to me, the horse's reactive and dangerous behavior appeared around that time frame. It is possible the behavior was due to fresh tooth mutilation."

She also indicated that a prescription veterinary sedative - specifically Dormosedan or Xylazine - was most likely used to drug the horse for compliance during the power drilling. "I know that because Coates asked someone to obtain more Dormosedan for him," she said.

Both anesthetic drugs are administered by syringe and are only available to veterinarians. "It is illegal for those drugs to be used by lay people without the direction of a veterinarian," Mixon noted.

After she was shown the mutilation, she told Guerra and the Running R foreman that she would build a case of animal abuse to present to the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and local law enforcement. The board "establishes and enforces policies to ensure the best possible quality of veterinary services for the people of Texas."

"I impressed upon the foreman of the Running R the severity of the abuse that had happened to Cowboy," Mixon told the Courier. "And he agreed to assist me and seemed genuinely upset by the abuse. He promised they would help me and keep (the horse) at the ranch until I could do a complete exam and present a complete report."

In his report, Merritt noted that at the time of the dental incident, the current manager and foreman were not employed at the dude ranch.

Cowboy traded

Instead, on Friday, June 22, Cowboy was traded to a local horse trader. "I wouldn't have known about it if someone hadn't given me a tip," Mixon said. "I take people at their word. I never expected this to happen."

Freely admitting the recent three-horses-for-three-horses trade, Guerra described Cowboy as a "tired horse" that had been on the ranch for a long time, adding, "He'd been rode day in and day out and we thought he needed a rest."

In fact, Merritt noted that the once amiable horse had been assigned to tote the ranch's "heavier guests." Merritt said he couldn't fault the Running R for trading the horse "because of his age," which is thought to be 20-plus.

Mixon immediately called the horse trader and offered to buy Cowboy for $500, but the horse trader wanted $1,500 for the horse - a sum Merritt confirmed. Also, according to Merritt, the horse trader had asked a local vet associated with an equine practice to examine the horse.

The horse trader told Merritt the vet had indicated that Cowboy had suffered no problems from the "engraving because it wasn't deep enough to reach the sensitive part of the teeth" - a fact Mixon disputes.

The vet also indicated there was no decay present, which Mixon also disputes.

"The dark staining indicates a degree 3 cavity with dentin exposure that can cause pain," Mixon said. "Enamel is white and does not absorb stain, only the sensitive living tissue of the tooth absorbs the black stain of dead matter."

Cowboy's 'strange
behavior'

She continued, "When I asked the ranch foreman how they discovered the words 'Suck it' on Cowboy's teeth, I was told the horse had been exhibiting 'strange behavior' during the last 18 months to two years."

Apparently, during an examination, the lewd epitaph was discovered.
According to Mixon, Running R personnel had reported that Cowboy, a formerly "bomb-proof" trail horse, had become "virtually uncontrollable." As described to her, the horse's behavior included "... taking hold of the bit and exhibiting head-tossing behavior after which his entire body would tremble and shake."
Mixon added, "They told me that this would happen for a minute or two and then Cowboy would be fine."

The foreman asked Mixon if the horse's behavior could be attributed to the tooth damage. Mixon said, "Yes, the behavior could be caused by tooth sensitivity, just like the pain we have with a cavity."

She asked to be allowed to sedate the horse at that time and do a full mouth exam, which the foreman declined. However, he indicated to Mixon that a full exam would be completed in the near future.

Additionally, Merritt confirmed Mixon's statement that Cowboy now experiences unusual back pain.

Merritt described the manifestation as "the horse arching his back like he was trying to pop it." Apparently Merritt was not apprised of Cowboy's peculiar head tossing behavior.

"The back problem could be referred pain. Pain in the mouth can cause abnormal head carriage which caused abnormal neck carriage and ends up in the back," Mixon explained. "Pain has a cascading effect."

Abscess, die & fall out

After discovering "Suck it" on Cowboy's incisors, Running R owner Migliaccio told Merritt she had consulted a local veterinarian who specializes in the treatment of large animals. "Diane told me that the vet said the engraving would have no effect on the horse," Merritt said.

When contacted, the veterinarian told Merritt he didn't recall the phone conversation with Migliaccio.

Although still an owner of the Running R, Migliaccio no longer participates in the day-to-day running of the dude ranch. She now resides in Austin, according to Guerra. A native of New Jersey, Migliaccio purchased the Running R in 2008 with her cousin, Scott Burroughs.

Meanwhile Mixon has consulted top specialists in equine dentistry, including Dr. Stephen Galloway, a Fellow with the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry. The ADV is an international organization of veterinarians with a special interest in the dental care of animals.

During the consultations, Mixon was told not only is there the potential for infection to travel up the tooth causing tooth decay and death of the teeth, but as the letters reach the chewing enamel surface, the teeth are more likely to fracture due to missing enamel. "In a horse, it takes two to three years for infection to reach a tooth apex, causing an abscess and tooth death," she said.

Mixon continued, "In a long conversation with Shane, I told him the vets who had examined Cowboy are not experts in equine dentistry. This horse has been abused and he needs to be in the hands of someone who has the time and money to help him.

No criminal offense

For his part, since Merritt cannot prove that Cowboy was subjected to "pain and suffering," Mixon's complaint is likely to go nowhere. He said, "This does not qualify as a criminal offense and no administrative action will be taken against the actor."

However, he also noted that the horse trader's veterinarian "couldn't swear that the horse did not suffer pain during the procedure."

A cease and desist order put in place by Chief Deputy Richard Smith when the investigation began on Wednesday, June 27, has apparently been lifted.

Merritt added, "(The horse trader) has no plans for Cowboy other than selling him."

However, Mixon has indicated her fight to save Cowboy is not yet over. "A person or people used this horse as a living graffiti wall. I want them held accountable, Cowboy in protective custody and no unsuspecting rider injured," she said. "This was a gentle trail horse that did nothing more than serve people for years and years. He didn't deserve this cruelty. I know I may never win, but if I don't stand up for what's right, evil wins. And what happened to Cowboy was evil."

Pictured: According to BCSO Sgt. Shane Merritt, the words "Suck it" were carved into this horse's front teeth with a power tool at the Running R Dude Ranch approximately two years ago. However, after investigating, Merritt does not expect the case to go forward. In response, Mixon asked, "Do they not know what a PR disaster this will be for Bandera County and the Cowboy Capital of the World when this goes viral on the Internet?"

Photo by Samantha Mixon, DVM

Equine veterinarian Samantha Mixon of Fair Oaks Ranch filed a criminal complaint with the BCSO regarding abuse of this horse, Cowboy. A former trail horse at the Running R Ranch, he has since been traded and is for sale for $1,500.