In his Southern twang, 36-year-old Chris Emerson explained he had totaled his truck, split from his wife, and "just had a bad rough patch."
Riding his horse Trigger from South Carolina to Florida, he couldn't pass through a city without someone taking notice of the pair. News crews that spotted the two considered Emerson a novelty.
"Perhaps it's the beginning of a perfect country song," one West Palm Beach reporter mused.
But authorities say the ride amounted to a crime: Trigger was underweight and malnourished, and his hips, ribs, and spine could be seen protruding under his skin. After multiple calls from concerned viewers who had watched the WPBF segment, Emerson was arrested for animal cruelty as he passed through Miami-Dade County on his way to Key West.
Now the county is petitioning for permanent custody of Trigger, saying the horse shouldn't be returned to his owner once the criminal case is over.
"Given the condition in which the horse is found, [Emerson] is unable or unwilling to properly care for it," the county's lawyers write.
Originally a felony, the charge against Emerson has since been reduced to a misdemeanor. The case is pending in court.
Since Emerson's arrest, Trigger has been cared for at a ranch owned by the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). SPCA President Kathleen Monahan says the horse's condition is improving.
"Since Trigger has been at the ranch and allowed to rest and to eat, he is naturally doing better," she says. "There were sores in his mouth because the bit was in backward, which was a problem, but that's now been given time to heal."
Although malnourishment can sometimes lead to irreversible problems, Monahan says the organization has been successful in getting treatment for animals in similar condition.
"We've taken in hundreds and hundreds of starving horses and saved many, many of them who came in really quite emaciated," she says.
New Times was unable to reach Emerson, who hasn't yet filed a response to the county's petition for custody. Though it's still too early to say what could happen to Trigger, Emerson's multistate ride could be the last time he'll ride horseback: The county has asked a judge to issue an order preventing Emerson from owning horses.
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