A horse breeder has been charged with 22 counts of cruelty to animals after 177 mistreated horses were found at an American farm.

When animal welfare officers raided Center Brook Farm in New York State last week they found horses that were grossly underweight, infested with lice, with exposed skin and suffering from rain scald.

Vet Jerry Bilinski estimated that most of the Thoroughbreds had been living off their own flesh for months. One horse was so ill it has since been destroyed.

Ernie Paragallo, 51, was arrested after the raid and subsequently charged with the 22 counts of cruelty.

He agreed that he had not managed his property properly but had not meant to harm his horses, according to USA Today.

He has been banned from Thoroughbred racing in the state.

Animal welfare officer Ronald Perez said: “I’ve been doing this job for 12 years. I’ve seen some grim things but not of this magnitude.”

Readers on USA Today’s website have condemned Mr Paragallo and some even called for capital punishment.

“All animal abusers need to be dealt with as real criminals, with much harsher penalties than are currently available,” writes Sparky04

“As everyone knows, domesticated animals rely on humans to care for them and abuse to any animals is appalling.”