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Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;

Heydon Animal Cruelty Trial

By Dorinda Troutman, RMR Staff Writer


March 2009 Issue


     “There’s nothing wrong with those horses. There is no difference from when I purchased them.”    —Craig Heydon speaking to Sheriff’s Deputies Travis McEldery and Jon Moles on August 4, 2008, the day that three of Heydon’s four horses were confiscated by law officers.

     Both Craig Heydon and his son, Curtis, repeatedly testified in court that there was “nothing wrong” with the horses when they were confiscated.


     Craig Heydon, 71, and his son Curtis Heydon, 37, from near Atlanta, Georgia, were declared guilty of 21 counts of animal cruelty after a three-day trial in a Ravalli County Justice Court in Hamilton, Montana. The jury, composed of three women and three men, deliberated nine hours before arriving at a verdict on January 30, 2009.

     As the bailiff read the verdict, both men stiffly stood facing her, and Craig Heydon’s face flushed deep red. Craig Heydon was declared guilty on ten counts of animal cruelty; Curtis Heydon was declared guilty on eleven counts of animal cruelty.

     The onlookers who were packed into the tiny courtroom included the County Attorney , three Assistant County Attorneys, sheriff’s deputies and horsepeople who had been following the case since the horses were confiscated and the story became national news. Overflow spectators watched a video feed in an adjoining courtroom. The bailiff had warned them to have no emotional outcries during the trial, and so people who had been holding their breath exhaled, cried and held hands as the verdict was read.

     Looking sternly at the Heydons, Judge Bailey declared, “Neither of you have taken any responsibility. It is unbelievable that you blame the horses for all that has happened to them.”

     The judge gave each of the defendants jail time of six months on each count, fined each of them them $585 for each count, and ordered them to relinquish the horses, pay for their care and costs, and pay jury costs. Bailey then suspended the jail time to 30 days on each count if all the fines were paid.

     The sentence was strong for a misdemeanor trial, but Bailey told the people in the courtroom that he wanted to send a message that animal cruelty would not be tolerated in Ravalli County , Montana .

     Mat Stevenson, lawyer for the Heydons, immediately appealed.


     The Heydons’ story came to light in early August, 2008, when their four geldings — Able, a bay gelding in his mid-teens; Diamond, a palomino gelding in his 20s; Casino, a sorrel gelding in his late teens; and Magic, a bay gelding about eight years old — were confiscated after spending 55 days in the back country. Rocky Mountain Rider Magazine printed the story “Left for Dead” in the September 2008 issue. Read it, as well as follow-up stories, online at


The Trial

     The prosecutor was Ravalli County Deputy District Attorney John Bell, who admits knowing nothing about horses previous to this case. He had increased the charges of animal cruelty against the Heydons to 21, up from four original counts.

     Mat Stevenson, the Missoula criminal attorney representing the Heydons, told the jury in his opening remarks that the horses were healthy and merely thin, such as “fashion models” would be.


For the Prosecution

     At least ten witnesses were called for the prosecution. Dawn Merrill and Q DeHart were first up. Merrill said that she and Q were trail riding on Big Creek Trail west of Victor , Montana on August 1 when they came upon a bay horse collapsed six miles up the trail. Merrill said that the horse not only looked dead, but “shockingly smelled like death.” The women were unable to get the horse to his feet.

     On August 3, Merrill and her neighbor, Mike Svaboda, spent ten hours slowly pushing, pulling and coaxing the incredibly sore and weak horse to the trailhead, after giving him food and water, and three full doses of bute, a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory.

     Svaboda testified that when he went up the trail that day, he had packed his pistol, expecting to put the horse down. But he and Merrill did not give up, and Svaboda ended up slowly walking out on foot, leading Able and his own mare.

     Merrill said that she and Svaboda took Able to her veterinarian’s clinic in Missoula , but her vet was not available and so they saw Dr. Dick Richardson, who was on call.


     Ravalli County Sheriff’s Deputy Jon Moles was originally called in to evaluate the Heydons’ other three horses when the horses were found by Sheriff’s Deputy Travis McEldery in a makeshift pen at a Stevensville rental storage facility on August 4.

     Moles, a steady, soft-spoken man with an aura of authority, described his lifetime experience with horses and back country packing. He clarified the details of the horses’ condition and injuries: “A fistula (the large sore on the palomino’s withers) is caused by overwork and an ill fitting saddle. The sorrel had raw sores on his withers, spine and chest. His halter had rubbed his face raw. None of the horses wanted to take a step, their feet were so sore. Everywhere I touched them, they were very sore.

     “The younger bay wasn’t as thin but you could still see his ribs. He had open sores around his feet and his hooves weren’t trimmed to fit the shoes that were on his front feet only.

     Moles choked up when looking at the palomino’s photo. “This was a total disregard of health and welfare of an animal. You can have equipment failure – things can happen – but you should take care of the horse if it is injured. The Heydons should have left their equipment and walked those horses out and taken them to a vet.

     “I would say that these horses were overworked and tormented. I would say they were tortured.”


     The Heydons had taken Diamond to Dr. Andy Cross, DVM, of Missoula , MT , to have his sores treated the day before the horse was confiscated.

     Cross testified that the horse was “skin and bones” and had a number of deep sores on his body, including one saucer-sized sore on his withers. He found the horse’s teeth to be in good shape. He said that Craig Heydon had told him that the horse had not had a saddle on him for that last 30 days.

     Cross said he knew that statement to be untrue because the friend of Cross who had recommended him to the Heydons had told Cross he had seen all three horses saddled at a trailhead within the previous two days.


     Dr. Shawn Gleason, DVM, of Corvallis , MT , was the veterinarian in charge of all four horses while they were in the custody of the Bitter Root Humane Society.

     Gleason testified that he had given each of the horses “a body condition score.” This is a method of evaluating animals in a scientific manner and is widely used by law enforcement in animal abuse cases.

     The score runs from one to nine, with 5 being the ideal weight, 9 being extremely fat, and 1 being extremely thin (bones and spine protruding and easily noticeable).

     Gleason gave Able a 1+, or just above death by starvation. He gave Diamond a 1+ to 2; Casino a 2; and Magic a 4.

     Gleason brought in a portion of an actual horse skeleton to show the jurors how muscle and fat attach to the vertebrae, and how they would prevent a saddle from rubbing the withers and shoulder bones. He explained how the loss of muscle and fat on Diamond had caused the bones at the apex of the withers to be directly rubbed by the saddle.          Gleason explained that when he inserted his fingers into the wound, he “could palpate the bone.” He placed his thumb and fingers on either side of a withers bone on the vertebrae to demonstrate.

     Denying the Heydons’ position that the horses had underlying illnesses which had caused them to become thin, Gleason explained how simple basic care, including plenty of food and water, had brought the horses back to health. When asked if he felt that the Heydons’ care of the horses was a gross deviation from care needed to sustain a horse (wording from the animal cruelty law), Gleason replied that if there was something stronger than gross deviation, that would be his choice of wording.


     Dr. Robert Brophy, DVM, of Hamilton , MT , testified as an expert with 42 years of experience treating horses. He had reviewed all the records and photos of the horses.

     “I was most impressed in that I had never seen a combination of such injuries and starvation before. I’d seen them separately, but not together.”

     Brophy said that blood taken from Able for tests by Dr. Richardson had to be diluted to be processed, as it was so high in enzymes (a condition signifying tissue break down and muscle cell injury).

     When asked if he had ever gone into the Wilderness to care for injured horses, he replied that he had – a number of times. “I have hiked in, ridden horses in, and flown in [to treat horses].”


For the Defense

     Dr. Dick Richardson, DVM, of Missoula , MT , treated Able the first day and then turned him over to Merrill’s vet, Dr. Erin Taylor, DVM, who treated him for two days until he was moved to the Bitter Root Humane Association in Hamilton and came under Dr. Gleason’s care.

     Richardson stated that he had never met the Heydons and was not being paid to testify. He said that the horse was initially in better shape that he had been led to believe over the phone by Merrill, and that Able walked into a stall, smelled the hay and water, and looked out.

     “He wasn’t depressed, which is one sign of starvation,” Richardson said.

     Richardson went on to explain that a thin horse is not necessarily unhealthy, and that he thought the photos of the other horses taken at the Animal Shelter in Hamilton “looked pretty good.”

     “Lots of horses that are moved here [to Montana ] lose weight,” Richardson continued. “It’s a frequent occurrence in my practice. Also a wound like that [on the palomino’s withers] is not uncommon in my practice, but most owners would hide that horse from the road.”

     Finally, Richardson stated that both Dawn Merrill and the Humane Society had done a tremendous job in rescuing and bringing the horses back to health, and that he believed it was a possibility that the Heydons had overworked and underfed Able.


The Heydons Tell Their Side

     On the third day of the trial, Craig Heydon told his side of the story, in a rambling account that was often cut short by his own lawyer, or by objections from Bell .

     Heydon told of growing up on a farm in Nebraska and said that he had exercised horses while in college in Kansas City .

     “What Curt (his son) and I were planning was to have a camping trip, moving at the most ten miles at any one time, and have three to four camps in all, over a 90-day period,” Heydon explained.

     “Curt and I did a lot of backpacking [in the past], but my knees won’t let me hike any more. Curt had never ridden a horse before. We went to a local horse dealer for help, but were only able to get two pack horses.

     “We priced out pack saddles, but they were very expensive. I never packed a horse before, but the guy I was buying from suggested two old riding saddles and making them work for packing.

     “We looked on the internet and found other horses to look at to buy in Oklahoma and Missouri . [The horses’ papers indicated that one had been purchased in New Mexico and another in Nebraska ]. I wanted an old slow horse that was nimble on its feet to be the lead horse and got the palomino, but when we got on the trail it had a hard time.”

     “The bulkiness of the two tents, sleeping cots, and camp table was a problem. We anticipated horse shoe problems and had all the horses shod by a farrier. We bought hay once we got here and spurs when we found out we needed them. We bought two extra shoes for each horse and 50 to 60 nails.

     “Can’t say I anticipated all that these horses would need.”


     During his testimony Craig Heydon usually referred to the geldings individually as “it.” Curtis Heydon always referred to Able as “she,” a term that he explained, with his lawyer’s prompting, was an endearment. Both father and son insisted that the horses were always given as much food as they could eat, both by grazing and with supplemental feeding.

     Craig Heydon explained, “On June 9, we went into the Wilderness. [They rode nine miles up Big Creek Trail to Big Creek Lake ].

     “We had 200 pounds of supplement for the horses. We had saddle sore cream and a fifth of grain alcohol for cleaning purposes. We took the pack horses in, unpacked them, and brought them out for a second trip in.

     “Preacher [the sorrel renamed Casino at the shelter] lay down five times after his pack was put on. There was not a thing wrong. I was the one who took care of the horses and packed them. Curtis took care of the camp and cooking. I’d let the horses go graze in the morning with a drag rope after trying unsuccessfully to use hobbles.”

     The Heydons had planned to continue up the trail from Big Creek Lake , over Packbox Pass , and into Idaho , however, snowpack and downed trees prevented them.

     “After June 25, we took out gear we decided was unnecessary like the cots and folding table. Packing and unpacking was a big headache.”

     In explanation of the horses’ many injuries, Craig Heydon said that the horses had fallen a number of times. “The palomino [Diamond] took a fall in a ‘mud puddle.’ The sorrel [Casino] had tried to pass the rider leading him on the trail and had fallen and cut his chest with his ‘breast plate.’ The younger bay [Magic] went down twice. The older bay [Able] went down five times. Each time they got abrasions.”


     Both Heydons repeatedly stated that they wanted to get “up to the Continental Divide” near Elk Summit, Idaho, to spread Curtis’ wife’s ashes. [ Elk Summit Road turns south off of US Hwy. 12, about 12 miles west of Lolo Pass. It is located west of the Montana–Idaho border, and about due west of Big Creek Lake .] The Heydons never became aware that the Continental Divide was a minimum of 50 miles east of them.

     They spent much of July camping in the Elk Summit Road area, and moved camp several times.

     Within a couple of days after getting to Idaho, they said that they smelled something rotten and found the palomino had a very large, oozing, maggot-filled sore on his withers. They tried to clean it with alcohol and doctor it with ointment. When they moved camp, they explained that they cut out the saddle blanket around Diamond’s sores and saddled and packed him lightly.


     At the end of July, they decided that Curtis would make a day’s ride (about 20 miles) over Packbox Pass and down Big Creek Trail to the Big Creek Trailhead. He would ride Magic and lead Able, who was to be saddled and carrying a light pack.

     Curtis planned to pick up their truck and trailer parked near Stevensville , MT , and drive it back to Idaho over Lolo Pass to meet his father, Craig, and the other two horses on the Elk Summit Road .

     Curtis Heydon admitted under cross examination that on his ride down Big Creek Trail on August 1 that Able had gone down “a few times,” before the final time when the horse wouldn’t get up “because he was stubborn.”

     Both Craig Heydon and his son, Curtis, repeatedly testified that there was “nothing wrong” with the horses when they were confiscated


Closing Remarks

     “Life includes all kinds of things that don’t go our way,” said Mat Stevenson, defense attorney, in his closing remarks to the jury, while casually chewing gum. “We need to have the freedom to do what we can without facing criminal charges. Could they have prepared better? Yes. Is it gross negligence? No.”

     John Bell reminded the jurors that there was a difference between thin and emaciated, and that ulcerations, untreated wounds, and abscessed feet were gross deviations from the standard of care.


What’s next?

     The Heydons’ appeal means that they could go to Montana Judicial District Court in Hamilton for another trial (instead of to an appeals court), with six new jurors. The Heydons were released on a $10,000 bond each. John Bell says that a second trial could happen as early as August, 2009, unless a plea bargain is agreed upon. The horses will remain in custody and in foster care.


     As RMR goes to press, the Montana legislature is considering two bills that toughen the punishment in animal cruelty, abandonment, and hoarding laws. Those bills are moving through the law-making process.  


Click here for a link to archived articles about the Heydon Abuse Case published in Rocky Mountain Rider Magazine.

Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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