CHEYENNE, Wyo. — On a 16-mile trek off a mountain, a young horse lay down — she could not go another step. The mare looked deathly ill to the men leading a train of horses out of a base camp for hunting and fishing excursions.
In a race against the weather last fall, they left behind the horse they named Valentine to get the rest of the animals down. When they went back for her the next day, she had vanished into the vast Wyoming wilderness.
Six weeks later, a worker spotted the 6-year-old mare, and her owners helped guide the healthy horse out through a storm and deep December snow. Not only is this grizzly bear country, a domesticated animal like Valentine had to find food and survive the harsh winter conditions.
She didn't even need veterinary care. But when the story spread last week in the horse-loving resort region of Jackson Hole, it unleashed a fervent debate among residents over whether the outfitting company did the right thing in leaving the horse, did all it could to find her or should have put her down to spare her suffering.
It has culminated in a state criminal investigation that aims to find out if the outfitter's actions were cruel or helped lead to what some call the miraculous survival of an animal that's iconic in the American West.
B.J. Hill, who owns Swift Creek Outfitters and the horse, said he has received angry phone calls from across the country.
"People are so quick to judge," Hill said in a telephone interview from his ranch. "Who knows what's going to happen. It's not over with yet. We're just trying to survive the moment that our horse is home."
Hill, who owns 125 horses, said Valentine is doing well and is happy. It's unclear why she got sick. But she survived on grass until the snow came, when she would paw at the powder to get the food underneath.
Jackson resident Joan Anzelmo, who has been around horses much of her life, is among those raising questions about why Valentine was left behind and whether enough was done to find her.
"I'm a horse person, and I just despair at the thought of that animal being left out in the deep backcountry with all the risks that occur for people or for animals and in one of the toughest winters that we've had," Anzelmo said. "So, clearly, this 6-year-old mare was able to survive, and for most of us, we consider it a miracle."
It is considered humane to put down a horse that's severely injured or disabled by old age. Based on initial information that Valentine was near death, Anzelmo and others say it might have been better to put her down than let her suffer alone.
Hill said the wranglers did not have firearms, but even if they did, he didn't see the sense of shooting a young horse and giving it no chance to survive.
"She was down, but she's too nice of a mare to go shoot for God's sake," he said. "She did what we figured."
Anzelmo said it is not the first choice but leaving it alone was not acceptable.
Hill, who was not on the trip, said most people don't know the whole story. He said his son went up a day later and found her gone.
He said perhaps the horse left the trail to get water. Maybe she was spooked by a grizzly bear.
Attempts to find her over the next few weeks proved fruitless, Hill said. Inevitably, the harsh winter arrived, and snow piled up by the foot.
In mid-December, a worker grooming snow trails in the Bridger-Teton National Forest spotted Valentine and called the U.S. Forest Service. Hill said he, his son and a Forest Service employee worked for about nine hours to get the mare back home, leading it out of the wild by a snowmobile.
"She was quite a ways from where she went down," Hill said. "She went way down country."
The Wyoming Board of Livestock is leading the investigation into what happened, including the reason the wranglers left her. Senior criminal investigator Ken Richardson said it will take about two weeks to complete the review, which will be given to prosecutors for a decision on charges.
Richardson said his agency has not uncovered previous criminal wrongdoing by Swift Creek Outfitters.
The company's annual permit review has consistently attained the highest rankings, which include treatment of horses, Bridger-Teton Forest district ranger Todd Stiles said.