Despite several months of improvements to the facility and treatment of animals at Griffith Park Pony Rides, the decision not to renew the city’s contract with the longtime Los Angeles mainstay was made due to a handful of pony deaths that the city said went unreported.
An independent expert hired by Los Angeles to evaluate the pony rides found that the deaths of four ponies were not reported to the city for several months, according to documents posted on the Los Angeles Concession Commission Task Force website.
Dr. Rachael Sachar, a third-party veterinarian with an emphasis in equine health, wrote in a report to the city that four ponies died in 2022 and the owner of the property did not report the deaths until she met with them directly several months later.
Sachar said that it did not appear that the animals died from neglect, but said the lack of transparency and communication was troubling and needed to be improved.
Two of the ponies died of natural causes and the others were euthanized due to severe colic. Two ponies died in March, another died in April and the fourth died in August. The city was not informed of their passing until Sept. 30, Sachar wrote in her findings, adding that she did not receive detailed veterinary reports regarding the health of the deceased ponies.
Sachar also evaluated the health of the other ponies and livestock that were at the facility and found that, while most of them were in good health, some had medical issues that required attention.
One pony needed treatment for conjunctivitis (aka, pink eye), another needed treatment for abrasions and a third needed treatment for open lesions on its withers — the area between the shoulder blades.
One of those ponies, as well as seven others, all needed treatment for sand in their intestinal tract. Horses that regularly ingest sand can develop sand colic, a condition that leads to irritation and sometimes obstruction in the intestines. It can also lead to severe health problems that can result in euthanasia, as seen in the two ponies who were euthanized.
Sachar recommended a simple and affordable solution of regularly giving the ponies psyllium to flush the sand from their systems. She also recommended rubber mats be placed below where the ponies were being fed.
However, her report did not paint a bleak picture of the conditions for animals at the decades-old Los Angeles landmark.
During her evaluation, she commended the facility for following through with previous recommendations she had made months prior. She had been tasked with observing the facility for more than a year and in the months since her initial visit, she found that many of her suggested improvements to the facility were made.
“I found the working conditions to be satisfactory and did not witness any gross violations related to the care or the treatments of the animals on exhibit,” Sachar wrote in her findings. “I observed numerous improvements made to the facilities since my initial visit. Water access and shade with misters was plentiful for all ponies on break or between rides. The grounds and facilities were clean, and the ponies were well groomed and maintained.”
She added that the ponies appeared “bright, alert, responsive and willing to perform their jobs.”
She also commented that she was pleased to find that the ponies who remained on the property since her last visit had all received follow-up dental examinations which was tracked in each animal’s veterinary history.
Ultimately, Sachar commended the establishment for making improvements since her earlier visits and provided some suggestions for further improvement and encouraged the facility to continue working.
But it was the unreported deaths of the ponies and limited documentation regarding their deaths that led to the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ decision to terminate its relationship with Griffith Park Pony Rides.
In a letter to Steve Weeks, owner and operator of Griffith Park Pony Rides, the City said it would allow for its contract to “naturally expire” on Dec. 21.
Jimmy Kim, general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, said the city would take over the location and “re-imagine the cultural, recreational and/or educational activities offered” at the site.
Kim added that the city would allow a 60-day window after the contract expires to allow for Weeks to find new homes for the ponies.
Upon the announcement of the city ending its relationship with Griffith Parks Pony Rides, Weeks said he would be working to find “forever homes” for the ponies and said he was looking for qualified horse loves who “care as much about our ponies as I do.”
The pony rides have come under fire by animal rights activists in recent years, with some alleging that the ponies were overworked and treated poorly. The accusations have led to some protests, which Weeks had said left many customers unhappy and resulted in children being yelled at by demonstrators.
In a public post on Facebook earlier this week, Weeks added additional details about the pony deaths that he felt were lacking in reporting by the media and animal activists.
Of the four ponies who died over the last year, he said they were all retired ponies who were not actively working, but rather lived on the property so that they had permanent homes.
He confirmed that two were euthanized due to extreme colic, but said he and the veterinarians that treated the animals did everything they could to save them, but were “unable to.”
Of the two ponies who died of natural causes, he said one was 38 years old — the oldest of the facility’s animals — and died in its sleep. The other, he said, died in a “freak accident where a pony was kicked by another pony in their corral and died from the blow.”
He disputed the city’s assertion that he failed to report the deaths, adding “Medical care for our ponies is a priority. Despite what these protesters say.”