The owner of a Norfolk sanctuary has been banned from keeping horses for life after pleading guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to 20 equines in his care.

William Hand had been running the Rainbow Meadows sanctuary in Foulsham near Fakenham since 2013 with his son Nathan Page — who was also served a ten-year ban from keeping horses.

In what has been branded a case of “unfathomable neglect”, the court was told how the pair repeatedly failed to provide basic care for the animals, ignoring “extensive advice” from Redwings Horse Sanctuary veterinary surgeons and field officers, and Trading Standards.

They also failed to comply with legal improvement notices served on them under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

When Redwings vet Nicola Berryman visited Rainbow Meadows on November 19, 2015, she found 20 horses in an emaciated condition and requiring immediate veterinary attention.

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Redwings took on 12 of the animals, while the remaining eight were sent to World Horse Welfare. One horse later had to be put to sleep.

At a sentencing hearing on Thursday (December 1), Hand was sentenced to 15 weeks in prison translating to a 12-month suspended sentence. The judge disqualified him from keeping all equine and cloven-hoofed animals for life and he was ordered to pay £415 in costs. Page was banned from keeping equine and cloven-hoofed animals for 10 years and ordered to pay £296 in costs.

Earlier, at Norwich Magistrates’ Court on October 10, the pair had pleaded guilty to eight charges of causing unnecessary suffering to the horses by failing to provide an adequate diet, provide parasite control and failing to address the causes of poor body condition.

They also pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to take reasonable steps to protect seven horses from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

Lynn Cutress, chief executive of Redwings, said: “For this type of neglect to have occurred at a place that called itself a ‘sanctuary’ is unfathomable.

“Our attending veterinary surgeon and senior field officer said this was one of the worst cases they had seen and the difficult rescue operation took over 12 hours to complete.

“For the 12 horses and ponies taken into our care at Redwings the road to recovery has been a difficult one, which only emphasises the extent of their previous neglect, but we’re delighted that we were finally able to offer them that place of sanctuary they so rightly deserve.”

Of the horses taken in by Redwings and World Horse Welfare, six horses have increased their weight by over 100 kg and eight by over 70 kg.

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World Horse Welfare’s field officer Jonathan Jackson said: “It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see a conclusion to this case.

“What I will take away from this case is the memory of emaciated horses standing in pouring cold winter rain, at premises which were totally unsuitable for the care of equines.

“Not one of the animals objected to being loaded on to lorries and taken to a better life. It has been great to see each horse’s transformation since being in the care of our team and I am delighted that six of them are now enjoying new lives in new homes, whilst the other two will be joining our rehoming scheme very soon.”

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Hand, who was representing himself, told the bench in mitigation that he had wanted to help the horses but couldn’t cope.

In mitigation for Page, solicitor Alistair Taunton said the teenager suffered from ADHD and had no formal training in animal welfare or husbandry and took no payment for his work at the sanctuary.