Six horses rescued from a mountain pasture near Groundhog Reservoir this month were surrendered to the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office Thursday by the owners, according to Undersheriff Matt Purkat.
The horses are safe and staying at an undisclosed location, he said. Criminal charges are pending as the investigation continues.
Assistant District Attorney Will Furse of the 22nd Judicial District said his office was working with Dolores County on a criminal investigation into the suspected mistreatment of the rescued animals.
Furse identified Sharon Ward as a suspect in the investigation. Charges have not been filed formally.
In a statement to The Journal Wednesday, Ward denied owning any of the horses that were rescued.
“The horses are not mine,” she said.
Ward does not own the property where the horses were found, Furse said.
Ward previously has faced charges of alleged animal neglect at her property on County Road P in Montezuma County.
During the execution of a search warrant July 22, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin seized 14 dogs for suspected neglect.
The 11-acre property included about two dozen horses, burros, seven head of cattle, sheep, goats and dogs, Nowlin said at the time.
State veterinarian Dan Love evaluated the livestock’s health and determined a seizure was not necessary. Extra care was recommended for seven horses.
The Colorado Humane Society recommended that the herd of about 30 animals on the property be reduced to 10 or 12 animals or moved to a pasture that is appropriate for all the animals, according to Sheriff’s Office reports.
At a hearing in late July, county Judge JenniLynn Lawrence ruled there was not probable cause for seizing 13 of the dogs on the property. Twelve dogs were returned to Sharon Ward and one was returned to owner Lousinda Ward. Lawrence found that there was probable cause for one dog owned by Sharon Ward to be seized and it should remain impounded, according to court records.
The Dolores County Sheriff’s Office, Dolores County Search and Rescue department, and volunteers conducted a multiday rescue effort to bring the horses to safety.
The effort began Jan. 2 when Sheriff Don Wilson activated Dolores County Search and Rescue to respond to a call from a concerned resident, according to a news release.
A drone was launched over the remote pasture, and although the pictures did not show obvious distress, it was determined they needed to be taken to a safe place.
The mountainous area at 9,500 feet elevation had been hit by snowstorms that dropped 3 to 4 feet of snow. Hay was placed to lure the horses to an area where they could be rescued.
On Jan. 5, rescue volunteers Clay Tillia, Ron Higman, RJ Higman and Hayden Riffey arrived by snowmobile to the location of the stranded herd near the Groundhog Vista subdivision.
They coaxed the horses to move toward nearby corrals, but they became inaccessible in a grove of aspen trees. Tillia and others snowshoed into the trees and persuaded the horses to move into open country.
Tillia said he removed a portion of a halter on one of the horses that was embedded in the skin, and the wound bled and drained.
“Once the halter was off, she was relieved,” he said. Rescuers provided initial medical treatment to the wound.
Mountain lion tracks could be seen in the snow of the pasture, Tallia said, which likely contributed to the skittish nature of the horses and reason they sought shelter in the tight trees.
“In a heroic snowshoe action, Clay and company were able to push the horses out of the tight aspens and into the subdivision,” said Capt. Keith Keesling, of Dolores County Search and Rescue, in a Facebook post.
They were herded to the Groundhog Store “for some much needed food and water,” he said.
After spending the night in corrals, the horses were herded to Disappointment Valley Jan. 8, where they were met by Wilson, loaded into trailers and taken to a temporary home offered by a resident.
The horses received veterinarian care, food, water and shelter, Wilson stated.
“The horses were rescued with medical and minor issues,” Wilson stated in the news release. “A state veterinarian will be requested for a medical assessment of all six horses.”
Dolores County Sheriff Sgt. Coty Kelshaw has made contact with the owner of the horses, and the incident is under investigation.
The rescue “adventure” had some twists and turns, along with some stubborn equine attitude, Keesling said.
On Jan. 6, the plan was to bring the horses down the rim trail to Groundhog Creek, “but the horses were not interested” and could not be persuaded.
“People are easier to rescue than horses,” Keesling said.
Trucks, trailers and volunteers who staged at Fish Creek for their arrival had to be reassigned, and a new plan devised to gather the horses at Disappointment Valley. Plows with Dolores County Road and Bridge cleared the way.
The rescue was a true community effort, Wilson and Keesling said, with many residents, county staff and businesses stepping up to help. Bonnie Candelaria of Groundhog Store provided housing and support for rescuers, Denkai Animal Rescue assisted as did Four Corners Backcountry Horsemen, Dolores County Road and Bridge, and others.
“A huge thanks. The rescue would not have happened without your efforts,” Keesling stated.
During the rescue, Dolores County Search and Rescue was active for 104 hours, drove vehicles for 623 miles, and had 118 snowmobile hours. The horses were herded for 16 miles.
This article was republished on Jan. 19 to include comment from Sharon Ward.