Saugus rancher Gerald Ingle said Saturday he was "hurt and embarrassed" by charges that he neglected his 43 horses, while area residents protested authorities' handling of what they called an inexcusable case of animal cruelty.
Ingle, 67, said he began breeding the horses five years ago to supplement his retirement income but let the business get out of hand. He put his ranch up for sale eight months ago, he said, intending eventually to find homes for the horses he kept on the property.
"There was a real yearning to retire to a small business, but it just didn't work out," Ingle said. "We wound up with no business, but we still had the horses. We just got bogged down in any way you can imagine."
Ingle said he keeps 33 horses on his remote Dry Canyon Road Ranch and 10 on 1 acres behind his house about three miles away. He employs two people to care for the horses, he said.
On the day after Deputy Dist. Atty. Elliott L. Fisher filed 90 counts of animal cruelty against Ingle, more than 50 Santa Clarita Valley residents picketed outside the Castaic Animal Control Shelter, protesting the department's decision to impound the horses on the ranch. Although the horses have been impounded under the county's supervision, residents want them moved to a county-managed facility.
"We're asking for the horses to be removed from his property immediately," said Laurene Weste, a Newhall resident who led the protest against the horses' treatment. "How can anybody trust the man who got those horses in that condition to do anything about it now? To me, that's like the fox watching the hare."
Ingle was charged Friday with animal cruelty after being twice ordered by animal control officials to trim his horses' overgrown hoofs and clean up their manure-filled stalls.
Although authorities said earlier last week that almost a foot of manure filled the animals' stalls, there was no evidence of the muck Saturday.
If convicted of the misdemeanor offenses, Ingle could face a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Ingle said Saturday that he has never vaccinated the horses and exercises them rarely. But he defended his care of the animals, saying they are "in great condition."
"When my horses get sick I call the vet," he said, "but I'm not going to pay $300 to someone to come in when there's nothing wrong with them."
Ingle, a maintenance worker at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, acknowledged that the horses' hoofs were overgrown but said he didn't have time or money to have them trimmed regularly.
"I'm hurt, and I'm embarrassed," he said of the charges. "But I don't have anything to hide."
Animal control officials said last week that they feared moving the horses to a county ranch could harm them. An animal control officer at the shelter Saturday declined comment on the protesters' demands.
Carrying signs and photographs of the horses, protesters said they were urging state officials to pass legislation to make cruelty to animals a felony.
"It's a paper impoundment, a paper jurisdiction," Weste said of county officials' supervision of Ingle's ranch. "The fact is, that man is still in control."
Later Saturday, Weste and three protest organizers moved to a K mart in Valencia to distribute pamphlets at the site of a local business exposition attended by County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
Although they remain at the ranch and are fed and watered by Ingle, the horses are under the supervision of the county's animal control officials. The department has sent two licensed farriers to the property to trim the horses' hoofs, said Jerry White, an animal control officer at the Castaic shelter.
Officials said last week that the untrained horses would have to be tranquilized to be moved from the site. The horses, they said, remain safest where they are.
"We want to get the situation under control," animal control Director Brian Berger said. "If we have to move them, we'll do it later. You always run a gamble when you tranquilize them where they could hurt each other or be hurt."
Bruce Richard, assistant animal control director, said last week that a county veterinarian found the horses in good health and well-fed despite unsanitary conditions.
Photographs that two protesters claimed to have taken showed the hoofs had grown so long that they curled unnaturally in front.
Domesticated horses need to have their hoofs trimmed every six to eight weeks because they are not free to move constantly over hard ground, which toughens the feet and maintains the hoofs of wild horses, said Dr. James Bullock, a Newhall veterinarian who specializes in horse care.
Horses with overgrown hoofs can lose their balance and fall when they try to walk, harming leg tendons, he said. Horses standing for long periods in urine and manure can develop hoof disease.