A passion for pets

Mattie trots past the wide gate and mud puddles and goes into the shady coolness of a tall barn. The smell of sweet hay and manure fills the air, and tiny gnats slowly begin to stick to sweaty legs.

“Matt-Matt, come here Mattie,” USF senior in international studies Monica Ruggley says, calling the happy yellow dog back in.

A tall, white horse standing in the short hallway of stalls is being groomed.

“It’s just like nail polish,” Ruggley says, as her boyfriend, Army Sgt. John Irwin, finishes cleaning underneath one of Moe’s hooves and begins brushing shiny liquid on top of it.

The polish hardens and protects hooves against excessive moisture, which can cause them to become soft, tender or sore. There are 1,500 more pounds of horse to clean, brush and polish. White horses are like white cars, Ruggley says. Somehow, Moe is already dirty minutes after his bath.

The 9-year-old racehorse nuzzles Ruggley’s shoulder and neck, where the bottom of his nose meets Ruggley’s petite, less than 5 ft. frame.

“Ever since I was five years old I’ve wanted to ride,” says Ruggley. “Now it’s like an addiction.”

In the beginning

Ruggley said her first riding partner was Sebastian, a 4-year-old pony her parents bought her when she was a 9-year-old. The duo competed in three-day Eventings and Combined Training competitions, which tested the pair’s precision in training, and the horse’s endurance, speed, strength and obedience.

In addition to Sebastian, Ruggley keeps Moe and J.T., both of which are geldings or castrated male horses.

Within the 13 or 14 years the rider and pony have been together, Ruggley has come to know Sebastian’s individual personality and quirks like the attitude with which he “sticks his tail out a little bit” during competitions. Ruggley and Irwin laugh at the assumption that horses have neither feelings nor emotions.

Moe likes his nose rubbed, but he doesn’t like men, says Ruggley. “He left his dental records on my dad’s stomach one day.”

Another time, a male farrier, a person who shoes horses, tried to move Moe by hitting the back of the horse’s legs with a rasp. Moe reared up, flipped backwards,and took out three stalls.

“He’s 1500 lbs.,” says Ruggley, while she rubs Moe’s nose. “You can’t force him to do anything.”

Costs of having a pet

Ruggley cleaned her horses’ stalls until she started college. “I just couldn’t be out here two times a day.”

Now the two horses and a pony live in Valrico, which is about 25 minutes southeast of Ruggley’s Ybor City apartment at a full-boarding facility where stalls are cleaned and the animals are fed, watered, let out and brought in daily from several acres of fenced in green pasture. The facility “(takes) care of (their) basic needs and I take care of everything else,” says Ruggley. “(In Tampa), it’s hard to find a place with a lot of space.”

Boarding costs run Ruggley about $250 per animal, per month.

“Down here in Florida, food is expensive,” she says.

Meals consist of Timothy alfalfa, crimped oats and pellets. That is at least $12,000 a year.

Horses, like people, can get sick. House calls start with a $50 fee. Twelve years ago, Ruggley woke up at 8 a.m. to find Regal, another gelding of hers, feverish with pale gums — signs of baby colic, a fatal condition if left untreated. He was injected with antibiotics, but collapsed and 16 liters of fluid and vitamins were pumped into him. That evening, between getting up and walking to a trailer to be transported to a clinic, he collapsed twice more. At 1 a.m. he was at the vet’s office. By 3 a.m, he had passed away from an aneurism.

Yet money has often fallen second to Ruggley’s love of the animal. J.T., or Justin Time, Ruggley’s other horse, might sell for $10,000. As for Moe, “If you have a solid competition horse, people don’t think anything of laying down $20,000,” says Ruggley.

Sebastian, the pony, could sell for $30,000, but Ruggley says, “I never would.”

Second nature

While Ruggley was still living with her parents, a friend, who was unable to take care of a kitten, offered her offered her $30 to take it home. Indicating its size with cupped hands, Ruggley says she was unsure of how her parents would react.

They said, “We’ll keep him,” and named the kitten Kermit since its sister was named Miss Piggy. Now, says Ruggley, “My dad won’t let me have him back.”

Ruggley and Irwin rescued and bought J.T. together.

“He was losing weight,” Ruggley said, when they got him “just in time.”

Then Irwin got a dog, and Ruggley remembered how much she wanted one. It was not until she heard of an attempted rape within her apartment complex that Ruggley actively sought out and adopted Mattie, a yellow-and-black pup from a local animal rescue.

“That’s what finally did it for me,” she said.

They have been together for about a year now, since the now 25-lb. pit-chow-shepherd mix was weaned. Mattie has broken her leg already. Ruggley says she was grateful the vet only charged her $130.

Along for the ride

A few credits short of graduation, a college student might be all smiles when pondering the dividends of a high-paying job without financial restrictions. But Ruggley smiles when she talks about her horses and dog. She anticipates traveling to North Florida and throughout the Southeastern United States to compete with Moe again, now that she has the money.

She takes Mattie to a dog park on Davis Islands to run around.

“She loves playing with all the other dogs,” says Ruggley.

At the end of the day, Moe, J.T. and Sebastian are not just animals. To Ruggley, they are someone to “share your apple with.” Moe stands behind Ruggley, his head poking out from his stall, and impatiently sways his neck side-to-side for attention.

At the end of the day, “you have something to look forward to coming home to,” Ruggley says as she pats Moe on the nose.