Editor’s Note: This article appears in the Colorado Sun. All photos by Clay Tillia.
By Maddy Butcher
While many were ringing in the New Year, a team of volunteers in Dolores and Montezuma counties were engaged in an eight-day effort to save six horses abandoned in the backcountry of southwest Colorado.
The Dolores County Sheriff’s office received a call January 1 from a remote subdivision near Groundhog Reservoir reporting that the horses were struggling in deep snow at about 9,000 feet elevation, northeast of Dolores. The animals were apparently abandoned on private property bordering the San Juan National Forest, some 15 miles from maintained roads, Sheriff Don Wilson said.
The horses had no feed or water. Images show the herd seeking shelter among aspens as snow fell, temperatures dropped below zero and winds increased to more than 30 miles per hour.
As news spread, public and private groups worked together to assess the horses’ welfare, strategize, fundraise and, ultimately, bring the horses off the mountain to safety.
“It’s a good, solid community,” Sgt. Coty Kelshaw said of the multi-pronged effort. “A bunch of good-hearted people came together. It’s the only way to get by, really, especially out here.”
Dolores County, which spans more than 1,000 square miles, is one of the least populated counties in the state with just 2,326 residents according to 2020 Census data. On the western side of the county, bordering Utah, the land is largely arid grassland. But in the eastern portion, closer to Telluride, the terrain is rugged. Elevation climbs from about 6,000 feet to over 14,000. It is here, on private and Forest Service roads closed on December 1, that the rescuers labored.
Initially, volunteers and individuals from Dolores Search and Rescue used a drone to locate and photograph the horses. Within a few days, they hauled in bales of hay by snowmobile to feed the horses, only two of which could be handled easily. The remaining four horses were skittish and wary of any human contact, a volunteer said.
But the group quickly determined that given the extreme conditions and remote location, feeding in place was not a long-term solution. Meanwhile, county crews helped clear about 5 miles of road before it became impassable, said Floss Blackburn, director of Denkai Animal Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization based in Yellow Jacket that helped with outreach and raised over $6,000 to support the rescue effort.
It took days to reach the horses and create a safe, snow-packed route for the animals to follow off the mountain. Montezuma County residents Clay Tillia, Ron Higman and others traveled in the deep snow and at some points needed to snowshoe through dense tree growth to reach the horses, said Tillia, who led a four-man team of volunteers.
Bonnie Candelaria, a local cabin owner, offered her summer place near Groundhog Reservoir to the rescuers, saving them hours of daily travel time. They spent three nights in the converted garage, where there was food, water, heat and electricity, Tillia said.
It appears the horses had been neglected for months. One mare wore an outgrown halter that had become dangerously embedded in her head, causing bleeding when a rescuer removed its nose band. A state certified veterinarian examined the horses this week and will work with a local vet to assure that the injury from the embedded halter is properly treated.
The horses’ owner has not been formally identified but could face criminal charges, Wilson said. Summons may be issued within a few days, he said.
Once a primitive byway was packed down, the horses were moved several miles each day, stopping at along the route at corrals used by ranchers who graze cattle in the mountains during the summer months. It was extremely strenuous travel for both animals and humans, volunteers said.
On Jan. 8, the group reached corrals on Disappointment Road, due west of Lone Cone State Wildlife Area, where they met volunteer Rod Williams and secured food, water, shelter, and veterinary care for the animals, Sheriff Wilson said in a news release. The horses are at a facility in Dolores County where a state veterinarian reviewed the horses’ conditions and administered care. All of the animals are expected to survive.
Tillia, a 34-year-old rancher, said he was relieved to have the horses out of the backcountry. “Anytime you get all the animals to safety, it’s a relief,” he said.
“It always amazes me, the survivability and wilderness skills of individuals in the Four Corners area,” said Blackburn, who helped fundraise and coordinate rescue efforts. “These folks are steadfast in their abilities to move about in the wilderness, harsh weather and climate of the mountains of this area. The community came together as a whole and in a huge way for this group of six horses.”