A COUPLE who failed to seek veterinary help for their lice-ridden pony have been banned from keeping horses for ten years.

Maxine Askew, 35 and her husband, Paul, 40, both of Briardale Way, Easington, County Durham, appeared at Peterlee Magistrates' Court yesterday, where they admitted by not calling in a vet they had caused unnecessary suffering to the male bay pony.

Prosecuting on behalf of the RSPCA, John Ellwood told the court that on May 16, last year, inspectors from the society had visited an allotment in Hackworth Road, Blackhall, where they found a pony in a "distressed condition".

The yearling was examined by a vet and was found to be badly infested with lice and in a very poor and thin condition.

The animal was covered in live lice and eggs, and had sustained large areas of hair loss and Mr Ellwood submitted what he described as "distressing photographs'' to the magistrates.

He told the court the pony weighed only 101kg, but by August, after being in the care of the RSPCA, it more than doubled its body weight to 233kg.

He said that when interviewed, Mr Askew said he had only had the colt for four to five months and it had been in the best of health "until it got these fleas", which he said he treated with powder.

When questioned, Mrs Askew said her husband had been treating the fleas and she described the pony as a "fussy eater".

Barrister Martin Towers, defending the couple, said the Askews were animal lovers who were guilty by "omission.''

He added: "They had no intention of causing the animal unnecessary suffering.''

The examining vet, he said, had confirmed that flea powder had been administered but the couple's action, he said, had been "too little, too late.''

Magistrates ordered that the couple be disqualified from keeping horses for ten years, fined each defendant £125 and ordered them to pay a total of £750 costs. They also ruled that they relinquish ownership of the pony to the RSPCA.

Speaking after the hearing, RSPCA Inspector Neil Mitchell welcomed the outcome of the case.

"The level of the sentence clearly reflects the level of the offence committed. It is nice to know we can now secure this pony's future,'' he said.