by Betty Nixon courtesy of Heber Wild Horses
“Do you know who’s shooting the horses?”
I often meet people out in the forest admiring and photographing the Heber Wild Horses. Because I spend many hours every week observing and documenting the horses, I have a familiarity with the individual bands within the herd and love to share information about the horses when people express a curiosity about them. Almost every time, I get the question, “Do you know who’s shooting the horses?” That is the burning question that prompted me to write this article and share with you what I know about the horse shootings. I don’t have all the answers, of course, but I am happy to share what I do know about these heinous crimes.
On January 21, 2019, three men were confronted on Forest Service road 146 by one of the local horse advocates. The men had surrounded a band of horses, and they had an empty horse trailer with them. They admitted to having a rope on one of the horses, but claimed they were removing shoes from a domestic horse. If true, that would be a crime in and of itself, turning a domestic horse loose in the forest. Local horse advocates, however, are very familiar with the Heber Wild Horses, and the horse in question was one of our wild ones. The men let the horse go and left empty handed. One of the three men is known to deal in breaking and selling wild mustangs. Heber Wild Horse advocates have information on several horses stolen from the forest, but have concrete evidence on three horses identified as having been stolen from the Heber Wild Horse herd and sold for profit by these men.
The following morning, January 22nd, the first of many horses was found shot to death. The black stallion, Raven, was found dead at the entrance of Forest Service road 144, near Highway 260. I received the heartbreaking news and immediately went to the scene. Myself and another horse advocate waited at the scene for law enforcement. A Navajo County Sheriff’s Deputy did arrive, but told us it was Forest Service jurisdiction and Navajo County Sheriff would only become involved if Forest Service requested their assistance, which they had not. Forest Service Law Enforcement came to the scene, but did not conduct an investigation. The government shutdown was in progress, and Forest Service was on furlough.
I was familiar with this black stallion, so I knew he had a bay mare and a young palomino filly. Very soon after my arrival on the scene, I surveyed the area and discovered the bay mare about 100 yards away when the sun’s rays shone on her beautiful reddish-brown coat. She lay on the side of the hill, dead. There was a bullet hole in her rib cage and a hole in her neck where carnivores had already started working on her, a sure sign that a bullet had also struck her in the neck, piercing the hide and providing an opening for the carnivores. I searched the area and found the palomino filly. She was alive! It was a bright spot in this sorrowful day. She bolted in fear when she saw me. It wasn’t until I went back later and looked at video footage I had taken of this little family alive on January 21st that I realized the bay mare had been pregnant with a foal that would have been born in the spring. The palomino filly would never know her little brother or sister.
Myself and another horse advocate returned to the scene two to three times each day to see if a law enforcement investigation had been conducted. Carnivores were working on the bay mare, but had not yet started on the black stallion, so we covered him with a tarp on January 23rd to help preserve the evidence in hopes a law enforcement investigation would begin soon. Finally, on February 1st, eleven (11) days after the shooting, a veterinarian brought in by Forest Service Law Enforcement performed a necropsy. The stallion’s dissected flesh and hide, in the aftermath of the necropsy, appeared to show evidence of bullet holes. The bay mare was too consumed by carnivores by the time a law enforcement investigation was initiated, so a necropsy was not performed. It appears her cause of death would not be “officially” determined, but the bullet hole we had seen in her told us everything we needed to know.
On January 26th, I had a gut feeling that drew me back to Forest Service road 144. When I arrived, I soon found the black stallion, Aztec, and his black colt, born last spring. They were unusually nervous and fearful and ran when they saw me. I knew immediately that something was wrong. Aztec’s beautiful black mare was nowhere in sight, and my heart filled with dread. I called two fellow horse advocates and then immediately drove to where I had last video-taped this stunningly beautiful little family together just three days earlier on Forest Service road 124A. When I saw the birds circling above, I knew my worst fears were about to be realized. We found her back in the trees, partially eaten by carnivores. Her stomach was largely consumed and I could see what I suspected was an amniotic sac high up inside her. Forest Service Law Enforcement and a Navajo County Sheriff’s Deputy responded to the scene and conducted an investigation. Sometime later, a local man came and cut the dead colt from the amniotic sac. He later showed me an 8X10” color glossy picture he had had made of the dead baby, telling me the mare had aborted her foal “as an act of self-preservation” after she had been shot. As the first person on scene, I can attest the unborn colt was not aborted, but died in utero when his mother was brutally shot and killed. On February 1st, Forest Service Law Enforcement and their veterinarian returned to the scene and performed a necropsy. Again, the aftermath of that necropsy appeared to show evidence of bullet holes in the black mare.
Horse advocates began patrolling the forest in pairs as a safety precaution because of a vile death threat made by one of the three men mentioned earlier who had been caught on January 21st evidently trying to capture a wild horse. The man had threatened to come into a horse advocate’s home at night with a knife, cut out her tongue, and kill her. This threat made us aware of the need to take additional safety precautions when venturing out into the forest. I was riding with another advocate on January 27th when we found the carcasses of two dead horses at the water tank at the 3-mile mark on Forest Service road 146. We recognized the two dead horses as bachelors from a small bachelor band we had observed in the area. One horse had an obvious bullet hole in his neck. The other was too consumed by carnivores to readily identify the cause of death. Forest Service Law Enforcement and a Coconino County Sheriff’s Deputy responded to the scene and conducted an investigation.
On January 29th, I was once again riding with another horse advocate when we came upon a palomino mare with what appeared to be an injury to her left hind leg. We suspected she may have been shot, but kept our distance from her, so we were not able to tell for sure the nature of her injury. If it was just a sprain, we expected she would heal. The Heber Wild Horses are healthy and strong and have an amazing ability to heal from their injuries. For the next three days, we returned regularly to check on her. On February 1st, it became clear this mare’s condition was deteriorating. We watched her laying on the ground and struggling to stand. At times, she would stand for just a moment and then go back down. We saw what looked like a bullet hole in her left haunch near her tail, and the entire length of her long blonde tail was soaked in blood. Three of us were making plans to take shifts throughout the night if needed, watching over her to make sure carnivores did not eat her alive. Forest Service Law Enforcement and their veterinarian were a mile down the road performing the investigation and necropsies on two other dead horses. Our plan was to stop them on their way out and ask the veterinarian to evaluate the mare. After a 3-hour wait, the veterinarian did evaluate the palomino and determined she was hopelessly crippled from a bullet that had impacted her spine. Forest Service Law Enforcement euthanized her on the spot with two gunshots to her beautiful head. The Forest Service veterinarian immediately performed a necropsy. After her death, we named this beautiful mare “Angel”. Once carnivores started doing their work on her, leaving a gaping hole in her, we could see a dead baby inside her. He was a bay colt that had died in utero. Again, this mare did not abort her baby as claimed by a local man who will remain unnamed.
On February 1st, I once again had a strong feeling I needed to go out into the forest. This time, I was drawn to Forest Service road 146. The feeling was so strong, I didn’t bother to call another horse advocate to go with me for safety, but quickly headed out alone. I drove very slowly with windows rolled down in spite of the cold. I was listening for the dreaded sound of carnivores. And then I heard it. I backed up and stopped to listen. Yes, I did hear it. Grabbing my gun and binoculars, I hiked up the side of the hill in the direction of the sounds. I found a bay mare half way up the side of the hill. She was dead and partially consumed by carnivores. I hiked up to the top of the hill where I could get cell phone service and called a fellow horse advocate. I hiked the length of the ridge, looking in all directions with binoculars. From the top of the hill, I looked down and saw the dead stallion, “Big Daddy”. The palomino mare, Angel, had been part of his band. Three of us horse advocates waited at the scene for over 2 hours for Forest Service Law Enforcement and their veterinarian to come to the scene. They had been performing a necropsy on the stallion, Raven, out on the 144, and now they were called to perform another investigation. The results of the necropsy performed on Big Daddy showed evidence of gunshot wounds. There was no sign of a necropsy having been performed on the bay mare. It’s likely the carnivores had already devoured the evidence.
On February 9th, horse advocates were notified of additional dead horses on Forest Service road 300. We tried to make our way to the scene, but had to turn around due to snow and icy road conditions. We returned on February 13th and found the carcasses of four horses (two bays, a Cremello and a buckskin). Forest Service Law Enforcement and their veterinarian had already been on scene and had performed necropsies.
On April 19, 2019, the iconic buckskin stallion “Old Buck” was shot and killed on Forest Service road 124 at the water tank just east of Forest Service road 51. I was less than a mile away video-taping a band of horses and heard the gunshots. When I found him dead a short time later, I could tell he had suffered a cruel death, which I won’t describe here. He was old and had what appeared to be a cancerous growth, but we observed him grazing peacefully time and again right up to the end, and we had hoped for a natural and peaceful death for this magnificent stallion who had lived his life wild and free for over two decades in his beautiful forest home. He didn’t deserve this cruel death. He was the most beloved and photographed stallion in the Heber herd. There are many photographs of him fiercely defending his family from other stallions, and then there are the gentle scenes of him with his most loyal and beloved buttermilk buckskin mare, “Pretty Susanna”, and observations of him nickering softly in conversation with one of his babies. He was nothing short of magnificent in every way. Rest in peace, Old Buck.
• Two federally protected Heber Wild Horses were found shot and killed on Forest Service road 50 in mid-October, 2018. Forest Service Law Enforcement reportedly conducted an investigation, but results of that investigation have not yet been released.
• Nine (9) horses were found dead in January 2019 in multiple locations within the Sitgreaves National Forest.
• One horse was found in January with crippling injuries by gunshot and was euthanized by Forest Service Law Enforcement on February 1st.
• On January 14, 2019, we were notified of two additional dead horses behind Bison Ranch. We were told that a local businessman had heard gunshots and found the carcasses of a palomino mare and her buckskin foal sometime between January 6th and January 8th. Instead of contacting law enforcement, he called friends to hunt coyotes off the carcasses. By the time we were notified of the incident, there was not much left to investigate except bones. This palomino mare and buckskin foal were part of the black stallion, Aztec’s, band.
• In addition to the ten (10) horses found in January 2019, four (4) additional dead horses were reported to horse advocates on February 9th.
• Between mid-October 2018 and mid-February 2019, horse advocates observed sixteen (16) dead horses.
• Ten (10) of the 16 horses were determined through Forest Service Law Enforcement investigation and necropsies performed by their veterinarian to have been shot; others were too devoured by carnivores to determine cause of death.
• At least 2 of the mares confirmed shot to death had foals that died in utero.
• April 19, 2019 Old Buck, the iconic buckskin stallion, was shot and killed.
• Two other horses are known to have died, bringing the total to 19 horses, but we have no reason to believe foul play was involved in these two deaths.
Horse advocates found expended shell casings at four of the scenes of the horse shootings and brought them to the attention of law enforcement. After the shootings in late January, and with Forest Service Law Enforcement being on furlough, Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES) set up a tip line. They received over 30 tips related to the shootings, most leading to the men identified on January 21st who were trying to capture a wild horse. Some people have speculated that they shot several of the horses as an act of revenge for being stopped on that day. These men are also known to have previously captured and sold Heber Wild Horses for profit. All evidence obtained by wild horse advocates has been turned over to Law Enforcement and to the FBI in Phoenix. CAES has collected monies for a reward in the amount of $4,250 for the arrest and prosecution of the person(s) killing horses in the Heber herd. A private donor has offered $2,500 for the arrest and conviction of the killer(s), bringing the total reward to $6,750. It’s hard to imagine what kind of evil monster(s) would shoot these horses, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say if they’d shoot defenseless animals, it’s likely they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a human. These dangerous criminals need to be caught! The law enforcement investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information about the horse shootings should call the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office tip line at 1-800-78CRIME. Anyone who finds an injured or dead horse is asked to immediately call the Black Mesa Ranger District at (928) 535-7300. To learn more about the Heber Wild Horses, follow the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance (HWHFPA) on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HeberWildHorses/.