In the beginning, it was all about the horses – 73 animals that were reportedly suffering from neglect at a Morgan horse breeding farm in East Aurora.

More than three years later, as the owner of the farm awaits sentencing on 52 misdemeanor criminal convictions for animal cruelty, many people watching the case are still wondering what will happen to the horses.

Well, it’s complicated, and it could take a long time to sort out.

Sixty-nine animals remain in the herd that was seized by the SPCA Serving Erie County on March 18, 2010, from Beth Lynne Hoskins’ Eden Farm stables.

Hoskins now has 39 horses that were returned to her, and the others are in foster care, overseen by the SPCA. Four horses have died since the raid.

Now, after what Aurora Town Justice Douglas W. Marky described as essentially “74 trials in one,” Hoskins has been found guilty on 52 counts of animal cruelty, applying to 52 animals, and not guilty on 22 other counts, regarding 22 other horses.

The verdicts have lawyers on both sides of the case studying new and untested provisions of the state Agriculture and Markets Law that apply to cases of animal cruelty involving farm animals.

The law provides a range of possible punishments, including probation, fines and jail time, and it also advises on disposition of the “victims,” who can either be returned to the owner or confiscated and sold.

Through her attorneys, Hoskins has been consistent in demanding the return of all her horses.

Right now, Hoskins and the SPCA have horses from both the “guilty” and “not guilty” columns of Marky’s verdict. For the near future, it looks as though they are all staying put.

Though a State Supreme Court justice handling a civil case involving the horses was the one who allowed Hoskins to recover 40 of her choosing about three years ago while the criminal case played out, most people close to the case say the fate of the horses will be linked to the sentencing in the criminal case.

Marky has set sentencing for Sept. 26, but Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said that, based on the length of the proceedings so far, that could change.

“We fully anticipate that sometime before sentencing – maybe even the day before sentencing – additional motions will be made to have the verdict set aside,” Sedita said of potential defense moves. “After 3½ years of dealing with Ms. Hoskins and Ms. Hoskins’ legal team, when it comes to sentencing matters, nothing will surprise me.”

Sedita was clear that the major issue for his office and the court would be the sentencing of the defendant.

“This is a criminal case,” Sedita said. “She could be sentenced to the Erie County Correctional Facility for up to two years.”

However, he said his staff also is researching how the state agriculture law applies to the animals in this case. With changes that went into effect about 2½ years ago, the law generally states that the court has the discretion to remove animals “that are the basis of the conviction” and to sell them, with proceeds returned to the owner – minus costs for their care and shelter over the course of the case.

The law also says people who may have a financial interest in the animals must be notified and a hearing held on their claims within 30 days of a conviction. It is believed some of the Hoskins horses were on lease or loan from other horse owners for breeding purposes.

The phrasing of the law raises several questions:

Does the court have discretion over all animals in the care of someone convicted of animal cruelty or only over those that resulted in a “guilty” verdict?

When do people who may have a financial interest in some of Hoskins’ horses have to be notified of her conviction – 30 days from the announcement of the verdict (which was July 8), 30 days from when the verdict is filed, 30 days from sentencing, or by some other measure? And who is responsible for tracking ownership claims on the horses and notifying possible outside owners?

Also, if the judge rules that any or all of the horses are to be sold, who conducts the sale?

“It’s kind of an area of new law, and we’re doing the legal research on it now,” Sedita said. “It hasn’t really been applied yet, so it’s what we call ‘an issue of first impression.’ ”

Though websites and Internet forums dedicated to horse issues, along with people commenting on The Buffalo News website, have provided no shortage of views on the Hoskins case over the years, the regional and national Morgan horse associations have kept neutral. Representatives do say that, if necessary, they are ready to help in tracking parentage and ownership of any of the horses.

The American Morgan Horse Association keeps a registry of Morgans for its membership and can identify a horse’s sire and dam through inexpensive DNA testing, performed using hair plucked from the horse. It also can track ownership, if the horse was ever registered.

At least some of Hoskins’ horses are believed to come from well-regarded breeding lines and could be of reasonable, if not significant, value, depending on their health, handling and training.

On the other hand, reports after the initial seizure of the horses indicated a number of the horses appeared to be unaccustomed to human interaction. That may or may not have improved in the past three years.

One woman who fosters horses – but who has none of the Hoskins animals – said most of the guidance she gets when caring for a seized horse comes from the veterinarian.

“You follow the doctor’s orders, and they usually have very specific nutritional needs,” said Mary Ellen Kranock, who has taken care of horses for the Niagara County SPCA. “If they haven’t been trained or around people much, you start at the beginning. Even if you aren’t putting a saddle on them, you certainly have to train them to be handled from the ground, for their safety and yours.”

Barbara Carr, executive director of the SPCA Serving Erie County, did not want to talk specifically about what is being done to care for the Hoskins horses in foster care, but she did indicate it included handling as well as medical attention, food and water.

“We give full care to these horses,” Carr said. “We do everything for the horses in our care.”

Right now, the SPCA is not expecting to be involved in the disposition of the horses in any way beyond its continued care for the ones in its possession pending Hoskins’ sentencing.

It is overall a challenging time for those in the horse business, which has seen prices drop as fewer people can afford to take care of their animals.

One local Morgan owner noted that even regular horse auctions are not bringing in much per horse. He and others who asked to remain anonymous questioned the high value placed on the Hoskins horses in some media accounts.

“The horse economy is brutal right now,” he said.

News Staff Reporter Anne Neville contributed to this report. email: