Businesses fear effects of court case about horses

Mary Jean Vasiloff, owner of McCulloch Farm in Old Lyme, looks on as a mare named Trixie eats hay. The Connecticut Supreme Court is currently considering a case in which an appellate court ruled that horses are inherently vicious animals. If that ruling is allowed to stand, said Vasiloff, it may be impossible for horse owners in the state to purchase insurance.
Mary Jean Vasiloff, owner of McCulloch Farm in Old Lyme, looks on as a mare named Trixie eats hay. The Connecticut Supreme Court is currently considering a case in which an appellate court ruled that horses are inherently vicious animals. If that ruling is allowed to stand, said Vasiloff, it may be impossible for horse owners in the state to purchase insurance. Kelly Catalfamo/The Day Buy Photo

A case now being considered by the state Supreme Court could have "catastrophic" consequences for local businesses that work with horses, according to Kathy Freeman, program director of Beech Brook Farm Equine Rescue in Mystic.

The court listened to arguments last week about a 2006 incident in which a horse at Glendale Farms in Milford bit a child on the cheek when he tried to pet it. In 2012, an appellate court found that the owner of the horse was at fault because horses are "a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious," according to an Associated Press report.

Several local horse owners say that if the Supreme Court agrees that horses are dangerous and upholds the appellate court decision, insurance will be unaffordable and they could be put out of business.

Aside from the practical effects of such a ruling, some area residents who work with horses say the court's characterization of horse behavior is not accurate.

"I think it's ridiculous to think every member of any species is vicious," said Dee Doolittle, founder and executive director of Mitchell Farm Equine Retirement in Salem. Her farm offers a place for older horses, which are more likely to be neglected or abused, to live peacefully in old age.

Mary Jean Vasiloff, who owns McCulloch Farm in Old Lyme, called the case "absolutely outrageous."

She blamed the situation on ignorance about horses in today's society, adding that there is "just plain garbage on the Internet about horses."

Vasiloff believes that with fewer people interacting with animals in the way they used to, they don't always understand how to act around horses.

At McCulloch Farm, Vasiloff allows visitors to interact with and pet horses and has several people who board their pets in her stalls. She's been working with horses since 1940, when she was 10, and said she has only seen a few people bitten.

In those cases, she said, the horse was usually provoked. She described one incident where a horse owner was bitten when she put herself in between her stallion and a stallion in another stall.

Jenifer Nadeau, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut's Department of Animal Science, said that horses are prey animals and are not inherently dangerous, though they may become dangerous if they are startled.

"A horse may react unpredictably since they are prey, much as a deer or moose would," said Nadeau. "However, I would not at all say that they are inherently vicious and likely to bite or kick. That is simply untrue. If one startles them, they may react this way to protect themselves."

Vasiloff said that some horses may be more aggressive because they have been handled poorly, and recently had some owners remove their horses from her farm because she thought they might bite.

She said those horses were bred to be "hot, energetic show horses" and that improper handling led to them being more aggressive than other horses at the farm.

Horses are usually gentle, however, said Vasiloff, and incidents of aggression are rare. She said they are "very social" and that even sometimes adopt other animals as companions, including goats, chickens and even snakes.

Vasiloff worries that if the Supreme Court upholds the Appellate Court's ruling that horses are dangerous animals, "there will be no (more) horses in Connecticut" because of the insurance and liability issues.

Nadeau agreed that such a ruling could be detrimental to the horse industry, because it can already be costly to insure equine events and may become impossible if horses are considered vicious animals.

Also, "one wonders, would we have to cage horses like a lion or tiger?" asked Nadeau. "That would totally change the husbandry of horses and cost the horse industry millions of dollars for something completely unnecessary."

Bill Moshier boards his 4-year-old Morgan gelding at McCulloch Farm and said he regularly lets his 2½-year-old grandson touch the animal.

Horses are not vicious, he says.

"What is vicious is someone with little or no factual information making a ridiculous statement like that," he said. "I would suggest that that individual pay a visit to McCulloch Farm and enjoy the horses stabled there."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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