GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — After their trailer ride from western North Dakota, Krystal, Ruby, Diamond, Princess, Karmel and Ginger were unloaded at the foot of a 1,000 pound-plus hay bale in the barn.
They made a serious dent in it.
"They ate hay for almost 12 straight hours," Doug Hannestad told the Grand Forks Herald. "They were pretty hollow."
That was two months and countless mouthfuls of hay ago. Spines and ribs no longer are poking through the hides of the six mares, adopted by Doug and Deb Hannestad of rural Hatton from a starving and neglected herd.
The spouses say three of the six mares were 400 to 500 pounds underweight when they arrived here, having lost about a third of their normal weight. From recent measurements, they estimate that each horse has regained about 100 pounds.
The mares were part of a herd of about 150 underfed horses found in Morton and Burleigh counties and have since been placed in adopted homes. Their former owner William Kiefer, who has homes in Fargo and New Salem, N.D., faces misdemeanor charges after authorities found the underfed horses and nearly 100 dead horses on his property.
The horses' response to visitors last week showed that they're no longer famished. Doug tried to lure them to the trough to be photographed by flashing the white pail that holds the daily goodies. The pail doesn't carry always-accessible hay or other staples, but rather a dessert mix of oats, corn and sweet feed.
Normally, the horses hurry to the trough. But, since their stomachs were no longer growling, they were more wary of the new faces. Their hesitancy wasn't because they feared the strangers, the Hannestads say.
"These horses haven't been physically abused," Doug said. "When we first saw them, they all were bright-eyed and alert, with ears up. They weren't hanging their heads nor were they scared of us. They just hadn't gotten anything to eat for quite a while."
The mares eventually overcome their shyness and bellied up to the trough. Other than some bullying for trough positioning by Diamond, the alpha female, the feeding was routine.
Doug, 62, and Deb, 59, have shared an affection for horses and other animals since they were preschoolers. They own three other horses, gelding Cody and mares May and Serena. Cody is the last horse from an Arabian stallion that Deb owned for 25 years. And the 11-year-old Serena is ticketed to pull a two-wheel cart.
Growing up, Deb aspired to be a veterinarian, an unheard-of profession for women in that era. With the added deterrents of the cost and the distance to a veterinarian school, she opted instead for nursing school. She works as a licensed practical nurse at the retirement home in neighboring Aneta and part-time for a veterinarian clinic in Cooperstown.
Page 2 of 2 - Deb proudly shows the six sets of adoption papers issued by the HHH Miniature Rescue Ranch, the organization that ran the adoptions. The papers state that the adopted horses can't be sold for slaughter nor sold in a sales ring.
"If you want to sell them, you have to find them a proper home," Doug said.
After the horses are healthy, the Hannestads' plans are to keep some of the horses for recreational riding and find homes for others. They don't anticipate trouble finding enough good homes.
"There are a lot more good people than bad people when it comes to animals," Doug said.
Until the time when they're healthy and ready for a permanent home, he has one cautionary note.
"When it's time for them to eat, you need to get out of the way," he said.