A Sonoma County judge Friday rejected felony animal cruelty charges against a former Olympic equestrienne from Santa Rosa accused of starving a horse nearly to death.

But Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite said Gwen Stockebrand, 57, could be tried for misdemeanor animal neglect.

The ruling followed a more than three-day preliminary hearing in which prosecution witnesses testified the 30-year-old thoroughbred mare had been reduced to skin and bones under Stockebrand's care.

Stockebrand's lawyers argued the horse was healthy but old and possessed angular features that made her appear underweight.

After hearing from both sides, Thistlethwaite reduced the felony to a misdemeanor, in part because of conflicting reports from two veterinarians. She said the evidence against Stockebrand supported a misdemeanor charge but would likely fall short at trial.

"And believe me, the evidence would not support a conviction," Thistlethwaite said. "That's just my opinion."

The attorneys were ordered to appear before Judge Peter Ottenweller on March 7 to set a trial date.

Stockebrand, who competed on several U.S. equestrian teams in the Olympics, the World Championships and the Pan American Games, faces a maximum year in jail if convicted.

She declined to comment after the ruling. Her lawyer, Robert Weems, said he was disappointed the case was not dismissed.

Stockebrand was charged Dec. 14 with felony animal cruelty after animal control officers alleged she deprived the horse of care while it was living at her Santa Rosa ranch from June 1 to Sept. 8.

The horse was hundreds of pounds underweight and a veterinarian recommended it be euthanized.

After it was turned down as a companion horse by new owners in Willits, it came under the care of a Sonoma County animal rescue group who nursed it back to health, prosecutors said.

Deputy District Attorney Barbara Nanney said the horse was in good condition when she saw it recently.

At the preliminary hearing, Sonoma County veterinarian Grant Miller testified the horse had been undernourished. A defense veterinarian, John Madigan, questioned the conclusions drawn by prosecutors.

The judge didn't say which analysis was more persuasive. She called them "diametrically opposed."

But Stockebrand's lack of a criminal record and her efforts to feed the horse after being contacted by animal control officers in fall 2010 added to the judge's decision to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor.

"A jury can decide the competing experts," Thistlethwaite said.

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