Allegations of serious neglect surround an Interlake horse-boarding ranch following an online plea from a concerned observer earlier this week.
Aesgard Ranch, located near Highway 8 in the R.M. of St. Andrews, 60 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is under scrutiny from the provincial veterinary office and fellow ranchers after a posting on online billboard Kijiji surfaced Tuesday alleging horses were being abused at the ranch.
The post called for the owner of seven horses to come forward and collect the animals from Aesgard, fearing the boarded horses were being starved and suffering as a result.
Arianna Chia saw the post and rallied a group of 100 horse lovers outside the ranch on Saturday afternoon, hoping to put an end to the alleged animal cruelty.
"We need to keep pursuing this, we aren't going to back down until we rehab the horses," said the Winnipeg horse rider.
However, the owner of the ranch, Arrayl Mason, said Saturday she is being unfairly targeted.
"I haven't done anything wrong, I'm the one who gets up to feed (the horses) every morning at 5 a.m.
"I was pretty stressed out today, I felt like I was going to die. I felt like I was being crucified."
Protestors held signs and photos of the horses that were believed to be abused at the ranch.
"This sort of thing goes on all the time, and it's unacceptable," said Ren Neufeld from Lockport. "It's inhumane treatment, and no one speaks for animals."
Neufeld believes the protest is a step in the right direction for animal rights in Manitoba.
"It makes people aware of animal-cruelty laws and that they're weak," said Neufeld.
Pictures on Kijiji show images of malnourished and scarred horses, some with ribs showing through their coats and others with clumps of hair missing. The horses have been housed at the ranch for approximately a year.
The owner of the horses, Nancy Martens, 19, was shocked when a friend emailed her the Kijiji pictures. She last checked on her horses in February -- at the time she voiced some concerns that they weren't eating enough then -- and barely recognized them when she saw them Tuesday.
"I cried for nearly an hour, like hardcore bawling," the Winnipegger said.
She was able to rescue her seven horses from the ranch earlier this week, but protesters estimate there are still 10 to 12 horses still inside the stable. Chia believes five of them are in critical condition.
"They're all in there, in a near-death condition," she said. "This is not mild. This is an extreme case and we need to stand up for them."
Aesgard Ranch is listed as a boarding stable available for trail rides and outdoor events such as weddings.
"We're putting a lot of pressure on the ranch owner, and it doesn't end here," said Martens. "This protest will help with animal cruelty laws."
Mason insists she is in line with the protesters. "I believe in animal advocacy too. There's nothing wrong with my horses. You're welcome to come see them any time."
Asked where they were Saturday, she said they were at the beach.
"They didn't need to be involved in this drama that does not pertain to them. These horses are like my children, they're my world."
Asked how many horses were on the ranch, she initially said she didn't know and that she didn't keep count of them all. Then she said she has between 10 and 11.
Papa's Ranch Equine Rescue operator Bonnie Riddell, who put up the Kijiji post and helped locate the owner of the horses Wednesday morning, said the Aesgard ranch has been a problem for abuse since it opened up approximately five years ago.
Riddell reports several horses have died at Aesgard over the years.
There's a long issue going on there. The provincial vet... why they don't shut this woman down I have no idea," she said Wednesday afternoon. "She has never been banned from owning livestock. (The provincial vet) is well aware of her. I don't know why they don't stop her. They didn't stop Walter Goba from Swan River, either."
Goba was charged and fined for numerous animal-cruelty violations after RCMP seized 27 dogs, 15 horses and two donkeys from his farm in December 2010.
"Everything I'm hearing now about this place is so heart-breaking," Martens said.
The provincial veterinary office would not comment on Mason, only wishing to point out it investigates all complaints regarding suspected abuse in Manitoba. The office would not confirm if Mason was currently under investigation, but did know of the situation involving the ranch.
Riddell said the latest concerns about Aesgard first came up two weeks ago, and the province did perform an inspection of the premises. Riddell said the provincial office removed one of the horses Tuesday -- after the Kijiji ad was already online -- and said Mason only surrendered the other six animals to officials after she found out Martens had been notified that her horses may be in peril.
Both Riddell and Martens confirmed Mason is telling provincial officials she actually rescued the horses from previous neglect and abuse, a claim the young horse owner says is "simply not true."