No animals, motorists injured in high-speed horse pursuit on I-70
Luck and heroics in Eagle following rare livestock escape from rodeo
Colorado State Patrol Trooper Jacob Best encountered one of the most unique situations he’s seen in 15 years of duty Friday in a high-speed horse pursuit on Interstate 70 near Eagle.
The horses escaped from the nearby Eagle County Fairgrounds, where the annual fair and rodeo was wrapping up its third night of the four-day event.
Best said a makeshift corral had been constructed in a camping area just west of the fairgrounds, and after one horse in the corral knocked down a board helping to contain the animals, another horse became anxious from an electrical fence, prompting a total of four horses to escape from the corral.
Once in the roundabouts at the Fairgrounds Road terminus, the horses made the decision to take the same route that anyone from the Denver area might be headed after enjoying the rodeo. They exited the roundabout at the I-70 east onramp and made the descent onto the freeway.
“That’s a worst-case scenario for us,” Best said. “Having livestock on the interstate.”
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Fortunately, the incident concluded some 20-30 minutes later with the horses being escorted into a waiting trailer. Best said while responders might have encountered some bad luck in the horses’ unfortunate choice of roundabout exits, they encountered a few strokes of good luck along the way, as well, with a four-horse trailer happening to be on-scene at the moment.
The biggest bit of luck is the interstate was closed just 13 miles back in Glenwood Canyon due to mudslides and debris fall.
But Best also said there was an additional bit of luck in the makeup of the motorists who were on I-70.
“A lot of people were aware of what was going on, and patient with us in closing the road and getting these horses rounded up before something bad happened,” he said.
DeDe Dickinson left the rodeo a little later than she had planned on Friday. As a “horse lady for 40 years,” as she calls herself, she attends for the animals more than the music, but stayed a little longer to enjoy a few songs from the Buck Ford Pure Country Band.
When she left, heading eastbound on Fairgrounds Road, her eyes deceived her, she said, as she thought she saw horses with riders in front of her.
“I’m going, who is riding their horses?” she said.
In addition to being a horse owner herself, as a real estate agent, she also knows most of the horse properties in the area.
“I know there’s no place to ride around here,” she thought as she saw the horses heading east on Fairgrounds Road. “But there’s this guy with his flashers on behind them, maybe he’s escorting them somewhere.”
The vehicle ended up escorting the animals into the roundabout, Dickinson said.
When she arrived in the roundabout, she saw a frightening image for anyone who enjoys rodeo events and also knows horses.
“They’re standing in the roundabout … there’s no halters, there’s no bridals, there’s no people riding them,” Dickinson said.
In another second, she had reached a conclusion about what was transpiring in front of her.
“They’re runaways,” she said.
She called 911. As she was on the phone, “somehow the guy that was trying to escort them with the flashers on actually started pushing them down the onramp to the interstate,” she said.
She said she became frantic with the 911 operator, who said others had called, as well.
“He somehow doesn’t understand that he’s pushing them, and he’s making them run down the side of the interstate,” she told the operator.
Friends in need
One of the people who had also called 911 — twice — was Dickinson’s friend, Reini Winter. Winter was a few cars behind Dickinson and had also caught a glimpse of the horses escaping the rodeo. She had reached the same initial conclusion as Dickinson, that people were riding their horses down Fairgrounds Road.
“And then the light hit them enough, and I was like ‘Oh no, those are riderless horses,’” Winter said.
Winter’s daughter, 16-year-old Autumn Heinbaugh, performs at the rodeo on the Freedom Riders Drill Team. Normally, Autumn’s horse would remain at the fairgrounds all week, but during Thursday night’s performance, she noticed the animal showing nervousness around the large crowds.
Autumn decided to borrow a different horse from a friend in Gypsum for Friday’s performance, but that friend would need the animal again on Saturday, so following Friday’s event, the family dropped off the horse at the friends’ in Gypsum and returned to Eagle. They were pulling an empty trailer that fits four.
Reini and Autumn were headed back to the Salt Creek area of Eagle when they realized they had left their camera by the Freedom Riders Drill Team trailer.
“We ended up circling back by the fairgrounds to pick it up,” Reini said. That’s when they saw the four riderless horses headed east on Fairgrounds Road.
During her second call to 911, Reini mentioned that she was hauling an empty horse trailer.
“I said ‘I just called you, but now they’re heading down the I-70 on ramp,’” Reini said. “I said, I actually have an empty horse trailer, do you need help, and she put me on hold and then came back and said ‘Sure, if you can get it on the road.'”
Reini got on I-70 without a problem, but up ahead, she could see that a truck was swerving and blocking traffic from advancing toward the horses. As she approached the truck, she realized it was Dickinson.
“I was like, ‘Hey, DeDe,’ and she was like ‘Oh, hey Reini,” Reini said. “Then we kept going.”
Along the way, DeDe Dickinson, Reini Winter, and Best, the trooper, encountered a sight they all described as bewildering. A rider, in full gallop, was chasing the horses, intending to rope the lead horse and save the day.
Best’s main problem, he said, had been trying to get in front of the horses.
“He was trying to get around them, which is the right instinct, but he was trapping them and making them feel more panicked,” Dickinson said.
Best said he was working with what he could.
“By my surprise, as I’m going down the right shoulder, there’s a cowboy on horse, going down the interstate, trying to rope them,” he said. “So that was one of the biggest shocks to come across.”
Dwight Sells, of Arizona, was excited about competing in the Eagle rodeo this year. His team roping team had a good shot at winning the event, which carries more prestige than a typical county fair as the Eagle County rodeo is sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
But on Wednesday, Sells’ team barely made it to their first event. Reini Winter said she saw the team arriving.
“Two guys came running in to bring their horses in, and the guy wouldn’t let them pull in, like, roping was starting,” she said. “A couple other guys said ‘Here, use our horses.’ And they ended up placing like second or third.”
Sells said after the long trip from Arizona, his team was surprised to encounter the Glenwood Canyon closure.
“We had to take a detour around Craig and Meeker, and we barely made it to that rodeo,” he said.
By the end of Friday’s performance, his team was leading the contest. Satisfied after a job well done, he decided to tie up his horse following the competition and hit the hospitality area for some food.
“My horse was tied up that whole time at the warm-up pen,” he said.
Later, he was walking the horse back to the trailers to the west — saddle still on the animal — when chaos broke out in the carnival area.
“Somehow they ended up going through the carnival,” Sells said of the escaped horses.
Dickinson said from her vantage it had also occurred to her that the horses had first run through the carnival before getting to Fairgrounds Road. Later, she would note it as another bit of good fortune to add to the list.
“That was fortunate, when those horses went through that carnival, that people weren’t hurt,” she said.
Instinctively, Sells jumped on his horse and began chasing the escapees.
“I was just trying to get ahead of them before they got to the road,” he said. “Before they go into town.”
As his horse sprinted after the other animals, people began pointing the way.
“I just kept running, got to the store, and then this guy pointed, saying, ‘They went down the interstate,'” Sells said of the escaped horses. “So I just kept following.”
Sells found welcome relief from the interstate closure which he had cursed on Wednesday.
Heroic efforts and saving graces
After passing the horses, Best was able to stop them with Reini Winter close behind. But the stop was only brief before the animals began running back in the other direction.
Fortunately, Winter had Dickinson’s phone number and was able to notify her.
Dickinson was waiting on the other end of the highway, a few miles away, helping to block traffic. She had found a few other horse riders at the ready with ropes, and the animals were quickly roped and corralled and loaded into Winter’s trailer.
Best said the horses ran for 3 miles on the highway before turning around.
By the time Sells got there, the rescue had concluded, and there was no trailer available for him and his horse. All the animals were dripping wet from sweat, he said, but other than that they looked OK.
Another trailer came and picked up Sells, delaying the reopening of the interstate, but necessary at that point, as Sells’ horse was too tired to ride back even if they could find a safe way to do so.
Before the incident, Sells said he was simply trying to turn the animals around. But after getting on the interstate on his horse, he began to have other thoughts.
“There was one horse, a gray horse, that was kind of the leader of the pack, and I was going to try to rope that one, because that was the one that was making all the other ones crazy,” he said.
Best said there were other first responders nearby, including the Eagle Police Department and the Gypsum Fire Protection District, so they were able to shut the interstate down quickly. But the other interstate closure — 13 miles to the west — made all the difference in Friday night’s events.
“I think our saving grace was that we didn’t have a lot of traffic because of that canyon closure,” Best said. “No commercial motor vehicles.”