A Carnation woman who runs a horse-breeding and boarding business was charged today with three counts of felony first-degree animal cruelty...

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A Carnation woman who runs a horse-breeding and boarding business was charged today with three counts of felony first-degree animal cruelty after animal-control officers said they found four dead horses, an emaciated foal on the brink of death and nine other horses without food or drinkable water on her property.

Jean Marie Elledge, 56, faces up to a year in jail if convicted.

King County animal-control officers went out to Elledge’s property after they were contacted a week ago by officials in Snohomish County, who are investigating the alleged abuses of horses on property she owns in Monroe.

Animal control officers who visited the Carnation property with a veterinarian found the youngest horse dehydrated and near death, according to the charging documents. A search of the property then revealed nine other emaciated horses, four dead horses located around the property, and a lack of grass and drinkable water, according to charging documents.

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Five horses belonging to others seemed in good condition and were left, the documents stated. Elledge told the officers that she had been boarding and breeding for a living for 12 years, according to the documents.

Local horse advocates say that mistreatment of horses in the rural areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties has been on the rise in recent months, spurred by a spike in hay and fuel costs, the practice of “hoarding” the animals, and even the manufacture of hormone-replacement drugs from pregnant horses’ urine.

Over the past two months alone in King County, animal-control officers have seized dozens of horses from at least three properties, including Elledge’s Carnation ranch, a Renton property where one horse died and 15 were taken three weeks ago after they were discovered eating their own feces, and a Covington property where starving livestock were removed, according to Al Dams, acting director of King County Animal Care and Control.

Dams said his office doesn’t track individual horse-abuse cases, but anecdotally those cases appear to be on the rise.

One reason, he said, is that more people are moving into King County’s rural areas.

“People who previously lived in the city are getting 5 or 10 acres, and they may get a horse without fully understanding how to take care of a horse,” he said.

Horse rescuers from several local nonprofits say the rising cost of hay is also a major factor. The price of hay has soared in recent years, adding to the expense of boarding horses, said Jenny Edwards, executive director for Woodinville-based Hope For Horses, which rescues horses around Western Washington.

Elledge, who stated that she couldn’t recall the last time her horses saw a vet, told a sheriff’s deputy that she had been having financial problems, according to charging papers.

Edwards also said much of the reported abuse stems from owners’ “personality” and from a phenomenon several horse advocates have witnessed: hoarding. Often, these people mean well when they adopt or purchase horses, but quickly get in over their head.

“It’s psychological. These people truly cannot see what is right in front of their eyes — they think they’re providing for these animals,” said Jaime Taft, president of Save a Forgotten Equine, the Monroe-based rescue group keeping six of the horses from Elledge’s ranch.

The horse market has also suffered a glut in recent years because of the use of pregnant-mare urine in the manufacture of hormone-replacement drugs like Premarin, used to treat menopausal women, according to industry experts. Mares that are kept continually pregnant for several years before becoming useless to the industry along with the foals they bear are flooding auctions, tempting horse owners who cannot afford to care for them, Edwards said.

King County sheriff’s deputies are still investigating the case of a Renton man whose horses were seized earlier this month. The man owns and operates a downtown Seattle horse-carriage company and was cited recently by the city for having a lame horse.

They were called to his property and found 15 horses being fed moldy bread and spoiled food from a local food bank, according to a search warrant document. The animals had lice, were submerged in deep mud and had no clean water.

Officers called a vet, who developed a care plan with the owner. The animal control officer returned twice within the next week to check the horses. On Feb. 6, one was found by the vet to have died from a stomach rupture due to having been fed low-grade hay, according to the documents.

King County prosecutors are also pursuing a case against Covington resident Jake Dean Rider, also known as Larry Blanchard, who is charged with one count of first-degree animal cruelty, for allegedly mistreating animals and causing the death of a horse in December.

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com

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