A horse is a horse, of course of course – but the question of whether county governments in North Carolina are adequately empowered to address complaints of cruelty to horses isn’t so cut and dried these days.

And Guilford County officials are now grabbing the reigns of the issue in an effort to “fix” a state law that many horse lovers say is broken.

Guilford County Animal Services staff, animal lovers and some area elected officials say a 2015 state law has tied the county’s hands when it comes to addressing cruelty to horses as well as other horse care issues. That state law classified horses as “farm animals,” which took away some of the horses’ cruelty protections that apply to non-farm animals.

Guilford County Animal Control Officer Kerry Jefferies said the state law limits what actions animal control staff can do.

“It takes a lot of power away from us,” Jefferies said.

County Animal Services can still cite horse owners for animal cruelty when those owners are in violation of state law, but in many cases the county has no ability to take action. The law doesn’t, for instance, allow counties to regulate how horses are housed. The 2015 law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly prohibits local ordinances that regulate “standards of care” for horses and other animals classified as farm animals. A county therefore cannot dictate requirements regarding shelter, feed, medical treatment or exercise for those animals.

Guilford County is one of the state’s leading counties when it comes to housing horses and it has been unable to address some recent concerns in that area due to the change in state law. One horse on Oak Ridge Road, for instance, is being held in an enclosed area that animal advocates say is much too small for a horse. In another case, horses on Elm-Eugene Street near the Cracker Barrel restaurant were reported in emaciated condition but Guilford County was limited in the way it could respond since some minimal state requirements were being met.

Impediments to county actions regarding the protection of horses were discussed at the Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Linda Stanton, a board member who once worked as a large animal cruelty investigator, told the 30 attendees in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House that she’d been contacted about, and shown pictures of, a horse that is “basically being kept in a dog lot.”

Stanton explained that it was in a very small enclosure for long periods of time.

“Unfortunately, that’s not a crime,” Stanton said. “I would like to see that changed. There’s two things you shouldn’t do with a horse: One is keep them in a dog lot and, two, is chain them to a tree. But there’s no law that says you can’t do that.”

Stanton added after the meeting: “Horses are flight animals so tethering a horse is a terrible idea. The horse has been restricted to a small pad for at least a month. But it has a roof over its head and water. Animal control cannot do anything, so we are told, since the horse appears to be in good condition.”

The state law that prevents county Animal Control officers from taking action in some cases of horse mistreatment reads: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no county ordinance may regulate standards of care for farm animals. For purposes of this section, ‘standards of care for farm animals’ includes the following: the construction, repair, or improvement of farm animal shelter or housing; restrictions on the types of feed or medicines that may be administered to farm animals; and exercise and social interaction requirements. For purposes of this section, the term ‘farm animals’ includes the following domesticated animals: cattle, oxen, bison, sheep, swine, goats, horses, ponies, mules, donkeys, hinnies, llamas, alpacas, lagomorphs, ratites, and poultry.”

According to Stanton, Guilford County gets about $10 million in revenue from the horse industry each year and, she said, therefore horse people don’t consider them farm animals, but that’s how they’re classified. That means they don’t have the same protections afforded to dogs and cats.

At the Jan. 17 advisory board meeting, Guilford County Deputy Manager Clarence Grier, who helps oversee the county’s Animal Services Department said the law was tying the county’s hands when it came to horse mistreatment.

“We can investigate, but if we find neglect or abuse, we can’t seize the animal,” Grier told the board, an advisory board created last summer to oversee Guilford County animal operations.

“The thing is, it’s state law and we can’t circumvent state law,” he added.

Grier said he’d been in conversations with the Animal Welfare Division of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency that oversees animal welfare in the state. He added that Guilford County officials may bring up the issue when they meet with Guilford County’s delegation of state legislators.

Guilford County Clerk to the Board of Commissioners Robin Keller has been helping coordinate some of the county’s effort.

“The way it was written, it literally cut out the authority of the county,” Keller said of the 2015 law at the meeting, adding that the county is actively trying to change that law

“There’s actually lots of people hitting this on all fronts,” Keller said. “It’s being actively worked on to see if we have to make changes – which I think we do – to get all the different support to expedite making an amendment to that bill.”

She added that the current effort to change the law is “moving much faster than any bill ever in history.”

Guilford County Animal Services Director Drew Brinkley said the law is a “barrier” to the county’s efforts to prevent the mistreatment of horses. He added, however, that animal control officers aren’t powerless.

“I don’t think any of that means that we can’t investigate cases of concern as Animal Control,” he said. “It just means that, for some specific parts of enforcement – for shelter, for instance – we can’t tell someone they must build a shelter and it must look like A, B or C.”

Jefferies said after the meeting that when she answers calls of horse mistreatment, in some cases but not all, just making the owner aware of concerns can help the situation even if the law can’t be invoked.

“Most people are happy to comply,” she said, adding that sometimes that isn’t the case.

Grier pointed out this week in an email that Guilford County can still enforce state animal cruelty statutes for horses.

“If there are genuine concerns for the welfare of the animal we can try to address those with the tools that we have available,” he wrote.

Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad said that he had contacted North Carolina Republican state Rep. Jon Hardister of Greensboro to see what could be done and he added that the two were discussing the matter.

Hardister said this week that he and staff are looking into the issue and he said that there are times when a state law has some “unintended consequences” that are realized once a law is implemented.

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said he’s studying the law and looking at potential changes that may be made to it.

“I haven’t been asked to draft any language that might fix the situation,” Payne said.

Stanton said that, in addition to strengthening laws preventing horse mistreatment, it would be beneficial to educate county citizens about equine needs.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh my God, I want a horse,’” she said, adding that sometimes people get one without knowing how to properly care for it.

A 2009 study by the Rural Center, a North Carolina nonprofit meant to encourage sound economic development in rural parts of the state, found that the state “supports more than 306,000 head of equine, valued at nearly $1.9 billion.”

About $66 million of that value was in Guilford County according to the study.

The Rural Center also found that Guilford County had a very active horse industry.

“With few exceptions, the equine inventory tends to be highest in urban and surrounding suburban counties,” and it listed Union, Guilford, Iredell, Cumberland and Mecklenburg as the five leading counties in that regard.

According to the Rural Center study, horses in the state are generally used for purpose unrelated to farming.

“Forty percent of the state’s equine are kept for recreation and trail riding,” the study found. “17 percent are show animals; and 10 percent are used primarily for breeding. Only 7 percent are used for work and 3 percent for racing. The remainder includes retired and companion animals.”