He might have been alone in a field, but Phoenix didn't become so perilously thin by himself. He had help.
When the 7-year-old quarter horse gelding arrived May 6 at the Taylor Road Veterinary Clinic in Turlock, vet Kristen Fosnaugh initially feared his internal organs were so damaged by starvation that he might have to be euthanized.
"This is one of the skinniest horses I've ever seen," Fosnaugh said.
Skinny isn't a strong enough word. Horses are rated by a body condition score that ranges from one (nearly dead) to nine (badly obese).
"(Phoenix) was not even a one," she said.
But thanks to Modesto's Diane Stevenson, Fosnaugh and others, the horse they dubbed Phoenix is rising again. He's going to survive and perhaps even thrive.
Still, questions remain.
How could someone, under any circumstances, let a horse wither away so badly?
Why did Stanislaus County Animal Services, which had been monitoring Phoenix since receiving a complaint about his condition in mid-April, show such patience with the horse's owner?
"He said he'd just gotten the horse a few weeks before," said Annette Patton, the county's new Animal Services director. "We try to work with the owners."
Officers inspected the horse weekly for three weeks, she said. A neighbor provided water and the horse had shelter, Patton said.
Food, enough of it, obviously was another matter. Instead of gaining weight, Phoenix continued to get thinner and thinner.
"We were going to have to make a tough decision," Patton said.
Stevenson and NorCal Equine Rescue of Oroville, a horse rescue organization, ultimately forced the issue and saved the horse.
Now, as Phoenix recovers, those around him wonder how a horse with such a gentle and sweet disposition went from the rich feed and the comfort of racetrack stables (his racing ID number is tattooed on the inside of his upper lip) to near death in a weed-and-dirt patch of land along Carpenter Road west of Modesto.
As Stevenson drove along Carpenter on May 4, she did a double-take when she saw Phoenix in a fenced-in area.
To call it a pasture would imply it had edible grasses. This one grew toxic plants -- foxtails and bearded barley, Fosnaugh said. Bearded barley is more like a burr than a grain.
"It stuck in his gums," Fosnaugh said. "They were ulcerated."
Stevenson went back for a closer look and was sickened by what she saw.
She owns horses and knows what a healthy one -- even if it's a bit on the lean side -- should look like. Phoenix was all bones, no muscle. His hair had fallen out because his body lacked the protein to maintain it.
"I almost doubled over and I broke into tears," she said. "What I saw you just can't describe. It was like going into some war-torn Third World country."
She went around to the neighborhood on the other side of the field and began knocking on doors, asking if anyone knew the owner.
"They kind of knew the guy," she said. "But they didn't know where he lives. A number of them said they'd called animal control and (an officer) would come out, look at (Phoenix) and leave."
Stevenson also called the county's Animal Services, eventually reaching a live person after a trip through the agency's automated answering system.
"He told me, 'We get calls about that horse all the time,' " Stevenson said. "I said, 'If you keep getting calls about that horse on Carpenter Road, shouldn't you do something about it?' "
A former photojournalist, Stevenson took pictures of the animal and posted them along with a plea for help on an equestrian Web site. Someone who saw the site contacted NorCal Equine Rescue. Tawnee Preisner of NorCal then called Stanislaus County Animal Services.
One of the animal control officers persuaded the owner, who speaks only Spanish, to cede ownership.
"About the time we were ready to take the horse, NorCal took it over," Patton said.
Next week, Animal Services will send its report to the Stanislaus County district attorney's office for review. The district attorney's office will decide whether to prosecute the owner on animal cruelty charges.
Deputy District Attorney Jeff Laugero, who prosecutes rural crimes, said these cases seldom reach his desk because it's difficult to prove criminal intent.
"We take these cases very seriously," he said. "Sometimes an owner doesn't have the means to care for the animal but can't make the decision to give it up. Usually, they're not consciously trying to harm them. They just can't afford the feed."
Indeed, pasture hay that sold for $4.50 a bale three years ago ranged from $11 to $15 a bale last summer. It's no excuse. An owner is responsible for the animal's health, period.
In this case, Stevenson said, the owner brought five bales of hay and of grain too late to impress anyone.
"He allowed that horse in that condition to live in that field of foxtails," she said. "That guy was willing to let that horse starve to death."
Phoenix survived by the thinnest of margins.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.