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Chris Emerson planned to spend Thanksgiving riding his horse, Trigger, a little farther down the road to Key West and the end of a journey he said started in South Carolina months ago.

But Miami-Dade police on Wednesday morning called a halt to the trip, charging Emerson, 36, with animal cruelty after determining Trigger was dangerously malnourished.

“He just appears very tired and hungry,” said Laurie Waggoner, who runs a rescue stable for the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “His back is very, very sore. If you touch anywhere on his back, the horse quivers and backs away and tries to bite you. You can see all of his ribs.”

With Emerson in police custody and Trigger at the sanctuary ranch, Wednesday meant an abrupt parting for a pair who had reportedly traveled together since the summer. Their trek began about five months ago from their old home in Greenwood, South Carolina, Emerson said, though he wasn’t entirely sure about the timing.

“I’ve lost track,” Emerson said during a brief chat with a Miami Herald reporter Tuesday evening. “I ain’t had a phone for half a year.”
Barefoot in the saddle, Emerson said he lost one shoe while sleeping in a storm culvert and decided there was no need for the other one, either. Asked about Thanksgiving plans, Emerson said he didn’t realize the holiday was even approaching until this week and said he had nothing to eat beyond a can of soup.

For Trigger, there were two plastic grocery bags stuffed with lawn trimmings. “That’s grass I picked up,” he said from the paved trail running under the elevated Metrorail tracks near Coconut Grove. “Somebody mowed it about a mile back.”

“He likes the fresh stuff,” Emerson said as Trigger chomped on the undergrowth and trains passed overhead. “He likes the green grass … He’s a good horse.”

Waggoner called Emerson “misguided” in caring for Trigger, noting a horse his size needs to eat about 25 pounds of food a day. That means hay and quality grains, not roadside grass. “Grass down here has little to no nutritional value,” Waggoner said.

She said a veterinarian examined Trigger on Wednesday, and estimated the brown mixed-breed horse to be about 20 years old, blind in one eye and unhealthy. “The vet said the horse was not in any condition to be ridden, much less from South Carolina all the way down to Miami,” she said.

Emerson said he’s had Trigger for eight years, when his brother bought it for him at an auction. He said his planned 820-mile trek to Key West began after his life took a bad turn back home. “I was married. Had a truck,” he said. “Got a divorce. Wrecked my truck.”
Searching public records seemed to confirm the biographical details that Emerson shared — a Christopher Emerson matching his date of birth lived in Greenwood, where he was cited for some traffic infractions, and that same man was married to a woman in Kentucky who now has a different last name. Attempts to reach Emerson’s family and ex-wife were unsuccessful Wednesday. A Miami-Dade police report listed a Greenwood address for Emerson.

Emerson said he wanted to “settle down” in Key West and had no plans yet on how to care for a horse in the pricey resort town. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come it,” he said Tuesday. “No pun intended.”

The look of a wiry man ambling along the highway on horseback tended to draw attention. He was photographed during a traffic stop in Miami on Tuesday afternoon, a city squad car with lights flashing as the officer spoke to Emerson, still in his saddle. An agency spokeswoman said someone called 911 to report a man on a stolen horse. That wasn’t the case, and the officer let the two go.

On Nov. 15, a Palm Beach television station aired a story about Emerson and Trigger passing through.

“Along this stretch of U.S. 1 and North Palm Beach, we spotted a man and his horse on a mission,” WPBF 25 reporter Ted White said as Emerson and Trigger approached on the grass between the sidewalk and highway. “The big question: Why?”

He pointed to the “rough patch” with his failed marriage and wrecked truck — “the whole country-story thing” he called it. Emerson wore a camouflage T-shirt, paint-splattered jeans and a canvas bucket hat, the same as when the Herald reporter happened to spot him and Trigger from the parking lot off U.S. 1 as the sun set Tuesday.

Emerson said Trigger brings out kindness in strangers. “They like the horse. Half the time, they don’t see me,” he said. “They want to pet your horse. They’ll give you a dollar or two, to help you out on your travels. Get you food. Traveling like this you don’t need much.”

Kathleen Monahan, the SPCA’s local president, said the nonprofit was receiving calls as Emerson made his way south with Trigger. “People who know about horses say he looked thin,” she said. “People started sending photos to us.”

When Miami-Dade police arrested him Wednesday morning off U.S. 1 at Southwest 143rd Street, they described Emerson as malnourished, too. He was charged with two offenses: animal cruelty and violating an animal’s health requirement.

“He appeared homeless,” a spokeswoman said. In the police report, detectives said Emerson told them “he did not have money to feed his horse or himself and depended only on others [strangers] for assistance for both of them to survive his trip to the Keys.”
In his interview with the Herald, Emerson said he hasn’t been in touch with his family and had no plans to try this week. Asked if he’d rather be home for Thanksgiving, Emerson said he wouldn’t.

“I’m thankful to be where I am now,” Emerson said from the saddle. “I rode a horse from South Carolina to Miami, Florida. The things I’ve seen between here and there are priceless. It’s more than I’ve done in my whole entire life.”