The Long Riders' Guild

Craig and Curtis Heydon

The American state of Montana enjoys a well-founded reputation as being the home of millions of horse lovers. The beautiful country, the glorious mountains and the state’s links to the Old West make it a favourite spot for Long Riders. Unfortunately in the summer of 2008 Montana became the scene of an infamous episode in equestrian travel abuse.

Craig Heydon, 71, (above left) and his son, Curtis Heydon, 37, had come to Montana from their home in Georgia. Accompanying them were four horses which they had purchased in three different states en route. Though they lacked any knowledge of equestrian travel, the Heydons had decided to spend an extended summer packing in Montana’s rugged Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

After two months in the mountains father and son split up and returned to civilization via different routes. Two local women were trail riding in the Bitterroot Valley, when they encountered Curtis Heydon coming down the trail. When he learned that the two women were heading up the trail, Curtis Heydon informed them that he had left his “lazy” pack horse behind. He then rode on.

Disturbed by his manner, the women were shocked when they discovered the abandoned horse.

Heydon had tied it to a log and attached a note to the saddle which read, “Horse down for no apparent reason. Will be back in 24 hours.” There was no date, name or phone number.

At first the women thought the horse had died, as it had collapsed. It was covered with an oozing sore on its withers which were went down to the bone. The wound was covered in meat-eating bees and biting flies. When the animal saw the women it nickered. They removed the saddle and tried to get the animal on its feet. But its shoeless feet were too worn and painful to stand.

When they realized the horse was too weak to rise, one woman rushed to a nearby creek to obtain water. The dehydrated horse drank five bottles.

After having untied the horse, removed the saddle and covered the exhausted horse with the saddle blanket, the women rushed back for help.

The abandoned horse was then brought down from the mountains. A search by local law enforcement quickly found the Heydon’s three other sadly mistreated and emaciated horses. They had been placed in a makeshift pen between mini-storage units. All four horses were confiscated and the Heydons were arrested on charges of animal cruelty.

As details emerged, the public’s sense of outrage grew. It was revealed in court that one of the previous horse owners had warned the Heydons that the four animals needed to be trained and conditioned before being taken into the mountains, advice which they flagrantly disregarded.

Under cross-examination it was also discovered that the amateur travellers had not bothered to purchase pack saddles.

To reduce costs the Heydons had bolted wooden dowel to riding saddles and then hung long bags over the backs of the horses. These bags, which were held in place by string, hung just a foot off the ground and held hundreds of pounds. As a result of the extreme pressure placed on the horses' withers, they suffered deep wounds.

Both Craig Heydon and his son, Curtis, repeatedly testified in court that there was “nothing wrong” with the horses when they were confiscated. Their attorney argued that the horses were healthy and merely thin, such as “fashion models” would be.

The public prosecutor called eighteen witnesses, including veterinarians, livestock inspectors, wilderness rangers, sheriff’s deputies and the three people who rescued one of the Heydons’ horses.

A veterinarian testified, “One horse had a large 6-inch sore over its withers where the skin had been completely rubbed off. It was about the size of a coffee plate saucer. The horse was literally skin and bones. It was probably somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds underweight and had a number of other sores on its body. It also had a voracious appetite.”

Deputy Sheriff Jon Moles choked up when looking at photos of the injured horses. “This was a total disregard of health and welfare of an animal. You can have equipment failure but you should take care of the horse if it is injured. The Heydons should have 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.”

Another expert witness was a Montana man who had spent years packing horses in the Montana wilderness. He had met the Heydons in the mountains, offered his advice and urged them to care for their starving horses. The Georgia men ignored him.

The Heydons were declared guilty of 21 counts of animal cruelty. Looking sternly at the father and son, 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.”

Craig Heydon watches members of the jury moments after they convicted him and his son of horse abuse.


The judge gave each of the defendants jail time of six months on each count, fined each of them $585 for each count, and ordered them to relinquish the horses, pay for their care and costs, and pay jury costs. The judge said that the sentence was strong for a misdemeanour trial but that he wanted to send a message that animal cruelty would not be tolerated in Montana. The Heydons' lawyer immediately appealed.


A second trial was held soon afterwards. Once again the defendants were convicted of animal abuse. At the conclusion of this trial the judge stated, “Their saddles and equipment were not correct. Their pack saddles were bizarre homemade devices and massively over-packed. There was no indication of hay being taken with them.


They said that they took 350 pounds of feed, yet receipts and oral statements add up to only 100 pounds of feed, with 50 pounds lost on the trail. They showed pictures of feeding the horses from a container the size of a margarine tub. They have indicated deliberate indifference to the health and welfare of these horses. They were used and abused. And, I still see no acceptance or acknowledgement of guilt.”


The Judge then said that the horses would be forfeited, and that all costs, amounting to more than $24,000 each, should be paid by the Heydons. The defendants were then taken from the court and sent to prison.


Curtis Heydon moments before he is led away to prison.

When Montana State Senator Rick Laible learned about the Heydon case he proposed a new law designed to increase the penalties for animal abuse.

Here are several articles in the Rocky Mountain Rider on this case.

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