SNOHOMISH — Judy Ann Caton was born with horse in her blood.
She grew up in Eastern Washington and spent summers driving cattle near White Pass.
Today, Caton, 49, keeps nearly two dozen horses on her sprawling ranch in rural east Snohomish.
It’s a long way from just three years ago, when she had 75 horses, was a national reining champion and held national and state positions in horse-sport organizations.
A combination of factors forced her to rein things in: The souring economy, the high cost to show, and now, the specter of possible criminal charges.
A Snohomish County prosecutor is weighing whether to charge Caton with animal cruelty.
A veterinarian in November determined that three of her herd, including Whiz, her champion gelding, had been so poorly nourished over an extended period that they experienced considerable pain and suffering, according to Snohomish County Animal Control records.
Officials immediately recommended that Caton reduce her herd and provide adequate feed and care to her remaining horses.
The once-emaciated quarterhorse geldings now are in better health, officials said.
Caton has cooperated with authorities since they were first called to her property on Nov. 9, said Vicki Lubrin, the county’s animal control manager.
She sold or gave away more than 30 horses. Animal control officers visited Caton’s property nearly weekly since they were first alerted to potential problems.
“Fortunately, none of the horses died and they’ve recovered,” Lubrin said.
Caton said she’s always treated her horses well. If animal control officials had visited her home just one week later, the horses in question would have been sheltered, fed and fine, she said.
She believes she was targeted by some people in the Snohomish County horse community who wanted her animals and who attacked her reputation.
On Nov. 9, a group of acquaintances arrived at her 120-acre farm with a list of allegations and demands. They claimed Caton was neglecting her horses and wasn’t able to manage her herd. They arrived with horse trailers and singled out specific horses they wanted to take, Caton said.
They threatened to call Snohomish County Animal Control if Caton didn’t sign a legal document giving up her rights to her horses, she said.
“I was just kind of numb,” Caton said.
Many of her horses are specially trained in reining, a sport many call the dressage of Western riding. It requires skilled riders and horses bred and trained to respond perfectly to commands.
Her prize breeding stud once was valued at $170,000; others in her herd won championships. Even though the market for horses has dropped dramatically, some of her herd remain valuable, she said.
When people showed up at her house Nov. 9, she refused to sign any legal papers. That included the power of attorney paperwork they’d brought along for her signature. Caton did give the group some horses already on a list of animals she wanted to unload.
Within hours, a Snohomish County animal control officer arrived.
Lori Goulet is one of the people who went to Caton’s ranch in November. She said there was no “witch hunt.”
Goulet said many horses were emaciated and she believed all the horses should have been removed.
“It was the saddest thing ever to have to leave those horses there,” she said. “It’s my own personal feeling that when somebody treats animals like that, they shouldn’t be allowed to have them.”
Word that horses may be in trouble on Caton’s ranch spread quickly through the tight-knit community of horse enthusiasts.
Soon people began to contact Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers.
“There definitely was animal neglect there, in my opinion,” Somers said.
He visited the horse farm in late December because he wanted to see the situation for himself.
The situation seemed headed in the right direction after animal control intervened, he said.
Caton submitted a 13-page typed statement to county officials. It’s part of the case investigation, bound in two thick notebooks, that prosecutors will review.
She said she’d never had problems in the eight years she’s had horses on her ranch. They were fine in September when she had them treated by a veterinarian. The horses foraged freely in pasture, and drank from a stream, she said.
“I am remiss in that I had not checked on my animals myself since September or the condition could have been addressed sooner,” Caton wrote.
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, firstname.lastname@example.org.