LOUISBURG — Melissa McCoy hasn't lived in this small Kansas town in 15 years, but she knows the talk.
"A lot of people are speculating," said McCoy, of Stilwell in southern Johnson County. "They didn't know. They didn't ask."
They are speculating about how McCoy's farm, once owned by her father — a well-known breeder and horse trainer — became a bone yard for 18 horses found dead last month. The sight of the possibly starved horses lying unburied has stirred this town of 4,000.
The horses, in various stages of decomposition, apparently died over an extended period of time, said Miami County Undersheriff Mark Schmidt.
Neighbors who live near the farm that housed about 60 horses say the animals were not fed enough over the harsh winter. Increasingly thin horses scavenged bark from trees and scrounged nubs of grass on the 146-acre farm that now houses about 30 animals.
A barn that in previous years was full of hay sat empty this winter, said Dan Hamilton, whose property overlooks the barn.
The Miami County Sheriff's Office has found that the horses' deaths were not criminal, although they acknowledge a problem at the farm.
Criminal neglect requires an intent to neglect, Schmidt said, and he has no evidence that the owners intended to neglect the horses. Investigators have receipts from feed that McCoy bought. It is unclear whether the farm's hired caretaker fed the horses or whether there was enough food.
Once named Kansas Horseman of the Year and top trainer at the Woodlands, Jim McCoy once had the largest racehorse breeding and training operation in Kansas, according to the Louisburg Herald.
In an interview at her lawyer's office, Melissa McCoy said she had little to do with the farm over the years. Her sister, who died in a house fire in 2000, took after her father and was the one into horses.
McCoy's brother, Michael, lives in Arkansas. He declined comment through his attorney.
A caretaker who had worked for her father for 20-plus years ran the farm and its 60 horses, McCoy said. The caretaker no longer works there.
The farm was a place for her father's retired racehorses to live out their lives, she said. Most were 20 to 30 years old.
McCoy learned of a problem in early March, when she was told that six horses had died. Given the ages of the horses and the harsh winter, that number was not unexpected.
But then she learned that 18 — not six — horses had died.
"As far as pinpointing exactly what happened, old age and cold weather don't mix very well," McCoy said. "The oldest horse that passed away was 31 years old."
McCoy said she did not know the age of the youngest horse that died.
She provided feed to the farm's caretaker, she said. It never ran out.
"My father trusted him to take care of the farm," McCoy said of the caretaker. "When we were told everything was OK, we believed that."
So were the horses fed?
"To be honest, I don't know," McCoy said. "That's something we may never be able to answer."
The former caretaker said the horses died because of age, not starvation.
"The horses were too old," said Jose Marinoi, who now lives in Oklahoma.
But neighbors and those who know the farm think the horses died because they did not get enough to eat. One neighbor put out bales of hay every other week or so for the animals. By the next day , it would be gone.
McCoy gave nine of the horses last month to Cloud County Community College for its equine program, said William McGuire, head of the college's Agriculture Department, which includes the equine management program.
Eight of the horses are broodmares 7 to 28 years old, and one is a stallion, McGuire said. The horses were in good shape, he said.
Todd Welsh, a veterinarian who handled Jim McCoy's horses until his death and is now helping Melissa McCoy, said the horses were thin when he first saw them last month. Not all, but a good percentage of the horses were underweight, he said.
Some of the horses were older, but a lot of them were younger — ages 2 to 4, Welsh said. He is not sure what happened.
"Jim passed away, and the kids were overwhelmed," Welsh said. "And they weren't involved with the horse thing so much, and they got hit with a lot of stuff in a short period of time."
Now the horses are on the right track, he said.
"We got them on a consistent feeding program," Welsh said. "We came up with a game plan to get weight back on the horses and make sure they were treated correctly."
Melissa McCoy said she is dedicated to fixing what went wrong.
She and her brother are giving horses to others to care for because they realized it was best for the animals. They hope to keep fewer than 30.
She said she has hired new help, and she now is on the farm every day.