By Scott Hammers • The Bulletin

One of Central Oregon’s highest-profile animal welfare organizations, Equine Outreach, is on the brink of shutting down.

It’s been just over a year since the entire board of Equine Outreach Inc. resigned due to disagreements with the organization’s founders, Joan Steelhammer and her husband, Gary Everett. Board members brought on over the past year have minimized the role played by Steelhammer and Everett, although they still own the property east of Bend, where the roughly 65 horses cared for by Equine Outreach live.

Equine Outreach has stopped taking in new horses. The horses taken in by Equine Outreach over the years are a combination of animals surrendered by owners unable to care for them, and those seized by law enforcement in animal neglect cases.

Bill Inman, president of the new board formed in the wake of last year’s resignations, said the sloppy accounting processes that spurred last year’s resignations and a recently concluded Oregon Department of Justice investigation into those practices have hampered Equine Outreach’s ability to raise funds. He said the group’s expenses for 2017 will end up somewhere near $200,000, about $40,000 to $50,000 above expected fundraising.

Rent payments due to Steelhammer and Everett for use of the property have fallen behind — Inman said Equine Outreach is $16,000 behind, while Steelhammer said it’s closer to $20,000.

Steelhammer said although she’s not planning evict the organization she founded, it’s an untenable long-term arrangement.

“It’s a matter of simple economics. I can’t afford this board’s learning curve,” she said.

The Oregon DOJ investigation was officially closed late last month, a week after the Equine Outreach board voted to begin the process of dissolving the nonprofit organization.

A 2½-page letter signed by Senior Assistant Attorney General Heather Weigler notes significant record-keeping failures on the part of Equine Outreach. Documentation of transfers between the nonprofit’s accounts and the personal accounts of Steelhammer and Everett, board meeting minutes, balance sheets, credit card statements and other records requested by the DOJ were not made available to investigators, the letter states.

The letter states that these failures are violations of Oregon law, but the DOJ has not filed charges.

Everett served as treasurer of the nonprofit for 11 years prior to last year’s board shakeup.

Many of the horses currently in the organization’s care are old, lame or in need of extended training before they can be ridden. Finding appropriate homes for these horses may be challenging and is likely to take several months, Inman said, all the while Equine Outreach will be spending money it doesn’t really have available.

“Just because we’ve told the horse we’re shutting down doesn’t mean they’ll stop eating,” he said.

In addition, Steelhammer was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She said between her medical issues and the DOJ investigation, she and Everett are increasingly leaning toward selling the property and getting out of the nonprofit business for good. She said in the future, she may opt to take in neglected horses as an individual, freeing her from the requirements of running a nonprofit group.

“Maybe this diagnosis is a really good thing, because 15 years is enough,” she said. “We’ve given up our retirement and our whole lives for a whole lot of unwarranted scrutiny.”

Inman said despite ongoing differences between the board and the founders, both are approaching the winding down of Equine Outreach like an “amicable divorce.” He said it could be difficult to sort out how the assets accumulated over 15 years of operations should be distributed — for instance, a barn built on the property owned by Steelhammer and Everett but paid for by Equine Outreach donations.

Steelhammer and Inman both said they’re putting the welfare of the horses first, and that they’re still hopeful a supporter of the cause might offer the use of their property for the organization. Inman said if Equine Outreach is to continue, it would probably need at least 20 acres to provide for the horses it’s currently caring for.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,