CHEYENNE -- Lying sideways on a bed of hay in a pen at the Cheyenne Stockyards, a mare breathed heavily, preparing for the final hours of her pregnancy.

But as any onlooker could easily see, something looked amiss about the horse: While her stomach bulged, a line of ribs stuck out conspicuously along her back.

"No ribs should be showing there," said Jimmy Siler, law enforcement administrator for the Wyoming Livestock Board, watching the mare struggle in vain to get up before collapsing back on her side.

The mare was one of 98 horses seized by the Livestock Board last month from Lincoln County rancher James Ridge in one of the state's largest cases of animal cruelty in recent memory.

Ridge allegedly neglected and starved the animals for several months. When Lincoln County sheriff's deputies and Livestock Board officials raided the ranch late last month, they reported finding several dead horses in fields. Others had gaping, maggot-infested wounds and had to be put down immediately.

And since Ridge didn't separate the male horses in the herd from the females, nearly all the mares were pregnant, Siler said.

The horses were rounded up and trucked more than 400 miles to the Cheyenne Stockyards, the only available place in the state large enough to handle that many horses, Siler said.

The Humane Society of the United States has paid the approximately $30,000 tab so far for the horses' food, shelter and medical care, said Heidi Hopkins, the society's state director.

As directed by state law, the Livestock Board is now selling the horses. The price of $30 per horse includes a lifetime brand inspection.

So far, Siler said, about half of the horses have been sold to people from all parts of Wyoming, as well as Colorado and Utah.

Some just want a good deal on a horse, Siler said. But others, he said, heard the story and wanted to help.

"All they say is, 'How could they do this to these horses?'" Siler said.

Even after a month of proper care and gaining 50 to 75 pounds, most of the horses still look emaciated -- though they're gaining weight back with a constant diet of hay.

It's been a bit tricky to care for them, Siler said, because they were neglected for so long that they've essentially turned feral.

"Feeding them grain has been a task because half of them don't know what it is," Siler said. "Half of them were running into fences because they'd never really seen a fence before."

The horse sale is tentatively scheduled to run through Friday, though Siler said that could be extended a bit longer. Hopkins said the Humane Society will take any horses not sold and find homes for them.

A court date has yet to be scheduled for Ridge, who has been charged with 90 counts of animal cruelty. The penalty for each count of animal cruelty is a $750 fine or 120 days in jail, or both.

Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at (307) 632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com.

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