Equine Rescue

Hay Airlift Successful in Saving Starving Montana Horses

story by Jan Falstad of the Billings Gazette

First Day Proves to be a Success

Billings Flying Service airlifted about 20 tons of hay, one round bale at a time, Thursday morning to hundreds of hungry horses on a ranch east of Billings along Highway 87E.

Also on Thursday, Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office officials used a borrowed John Deere tractor and flatbed trailer to feed other bands of horses.

An estimated 500 to 700 horses belonging to James Leachman are spread over 20 miles across a handful of ranches and Crow Reservation leases.

Leachman, of Billings, was charged Friday with five main and five alternative counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. He is scheduled to make his first appearance at 3:15 p.m. Friday in Justice Court. The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office based the charges on five dead horses found on the ranch earlier this month.

The airlift, using a heavy-duty Bell Huey UH-1H helicopter, took a little more than two hours. A smaller helicopter flew for three or four hours to scout and gather some of the horses, according to Al Blain, who owns Billings Flying Service with his brother, Gary Blain.

“This was something that was easy for us to do,” Al Blain said. “We got the immediate need met and now they can feed by tractors and flatbeds, which will be much more economical.”

With horses spread out so far, the first step was to collect the biggest herd in the grassless 2,600-acre Tschirgi pasture.

“There was onesies and twosies everywhere, and we tried to gather them up,” Al Blain said. “I was afraid the hay wouldn’t get found. How’s the horse on the other side of the pasture going to know?”

Three mares and two colts couldn’t be moved, Blain said, adding, “It looked like they were in rough shape.”

The dropped hay will last a few days. So far, 250 tons of hay have been donated for the rescue effort, dubbed Operation Home Place.

Turk Stovall, whose family now owns the former Leachman Cattle Co.’s Home Place ranch, said Leachman’s horses have been illegally grazing on their land since July, when they bought the ranch at a federal foreclosure sale.

A.J. Blain flew the Huey and dropped the bales, while his father, Al Blain, flew Stovall around the ranch in the smaller chopper to locate the best drop sites.

“It’s awesome, the outpouring of volunteers,” Stovall said. “We’ve been feeding them for six months, and the neighboring landowners have been feeding them for years.”

Stovall estimated that Leachman’s about 500 horses each eat at least $1 per day worth of grass. Horses eat 2.5 times as much as a cow, and this herd can consume $1,600 worth of hay per day.

With his cows calving and needing the coming spring grass, Stovall said his family can’t continue to let the horses graze on their land indefinitely. And Stovall said his family has spearheaded the effort to get help for horses they don’t own.

“These horses would never have had a chance if we hadn’t said, ‘We need some help out here,’ ” Stovall said.

As of Thursday morning, the Northern International Livestock Exposition had pledges for 350 tons of hay from Montana and Wyoming and cash donations of more than $10,000.

“I had a mom call from Alaska and her daughter wanted to donate her birthday money,” NILE Executive Director Justin Mills said.

Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, who drove the loaner tractor, pulled the bales off the trailer he borrowed from his neighbor and dropped the hay into the nets bound for the Tschirgi pasture two miles away.

“We’re lucky we live in this community,” Linder said. “I spent three hours on the phone, and in three hours the hitch was being built, I had the tractor and the helicopter lined up.”

Because the ground is too muddy now for pickups to haul heavy flatbeds, Berkley Equipment & Machine Works built a special hitch so the tractor could pull the gooseneck trailer. Pacific Steel donated the steel. A Billings implement dealer, which wanted to remain anonymous, loaned the tractor.

More hay will be given to the horses Saturday.

“We’re doing all we can to get all the hay to as many horses as possible. Hopefully, it’s enough,” Linder said.

15 replies »

  1. Just got home and feel as if I’ve been rode hard and put away wet! Open my mail to see this and am sitting here with of gratitude rolling. With all the crap going on in this country when it comes to animals, there are days I am ashamed of being human. Then there are evenings like this when I am reminded what the best of being human really is – helping those in trouble whether 2-legged, 4 legged, winged, or with fins! We all are part of this earth and each other – and what we do to the lowest creature we do to ourselves. As my dad use to say, until you all are better paid…thank you from the bottom of my heart for the efforts you have made throughout this horror and especially today! Blessed Be!


  2. You read stuff like this and remember – all cattlemen can’t be lumped into a single category.
    Bless all these folks for coming together as a community and gittin’ ‘er done!


  3. yes! you can Amen !!! Reading this restores my faith in the really caring, sharing people who are here, to me this is the utmost of compassion and love that is in us all, it fills my heart with pride, it warms my soul, and my mind to know these type of people really exist , and they share that beauty with the ones who cannot do for themselves……and who surely give to us much more than we can ever repay !!!I I am humbled at the Beauty of this story !!!! and also all the other stories of the kindness and caring , and sharing and love given to our Mustangs , Horses and all the animal s big or small……………….. The Animals give their love so freely and innocently to us……. This is all they know……………………..


  4. What an outstanding example of community effort when a need is recognized and people are made aware of it. Most folks, including cattle ranchers by the way, are good hearted but they are not the ones who get the headlines. No controversy to report equals no report at all in most cases.

    Thanks to all that are helping these horses fend off another Montana winter.


  5. Is that actually a UH-1 (real-time) in the photo?

    If it is, what a compliment….the work horse of ‘Nam workingi to help equines! Perfect poetry…dependin’ on who is flyin and the Huey, it is a trip to remember; right up there with the C-130.


  6. That was such good work to get it all organized. What wonderful people.
    I hope they were able to do something for the three mares and colts.


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