The Horse Soldier

After years of making the fur fly, a veteran animal-rights activist puts herself out to pasture.

There are no moments of luxury in the life of a horse-abuse investigator.
It's a world of hiding in bushes with video cameras, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes while staking out some lonely pasture, looking for signs of animal mistreatment.

Danger? How about escaping from a rake-wielding horse owner or getting socked in the eye because someone thinks you might be a private detective.

The rewards? Few and far between. A friendly nuzzle from a horse is about it.

As the chief investigator for Colorado's Project Equus, Robin Duxbury knows this world. Pulling to the side of a rural road on a cold afternoon, the 43-year-old equine advocate slips a sling over her perfectly healthy left arm. It's a ruse, she explains, a distraction intended to make the horse trainer she's about to visit remember her broken arm and not her face. She pulls out a silver Canon camera--"my spy camera," she calls it--that's small enough to fit into a pocket or pass for a pager.

She's going in.
The cloak-and-dagger life is a decided change of pace for Duxbury, a longtime Denver animal-rights activist who made her mark with a series of in-your-face protests. Over the past decade she's challenged the sale of furs alongside Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed, fought prairie-dog shoots on the Western Slope and lobbied to keep dolphins out of the proposed Colorado's Ocean Journey aquarium. Her style has been loud and unfailingly aggressive: One local billboard paid for by her Rocky Mountain Humane Society in 1987 featured a woman dragging a fur that was trailed by a large red stain. The tag read: "It takes forty dumb animals to make a fur coat, but only one to wear it."

Then there was the 1990 protest of the Air Force Academy's annual autumn deer hunt--a crazy scene of hunters, protesters and reporters that resulted in Duxbury's arrest for trespassing. In trying to leave the area, she got in the wrong car. "I wouldn't have been arrested if I hadn't gotten in a car with a flat tire," she says.

Her escapades earned her mentions in national newspapers and also earned her several enemies. After the prairie-dog competition, somebody mailed her one of the dead animals as a macabre gift.

But the woman sitting alongside a Boulder County road this afternoon is the new-look Duxbury. As the years have passed, she's narrowed her scope from broader animal-rights issues and now focuses only on horses. And unlike the old days, when she got headlines for going on the warpath against Mary Kay cosmetics (she accused the company of testing products on animals), she's taking pains to be invisible.

There's more than a touch of paranoia about Duxbury today, as if she fears her past adventures will catch up to her. Giant posters and bullhorns loud enough to shame the fur-wearing masses are out. Phony names, calls from "safe" phones and disguises are in.

Down a long drive, past an elegant brick house, she pulls in to a barn that she's heard about from two reliable sources. The place is empty except for a lone ranch hand, whom she flags down and asks about taking riding lessons--her preferred method of infiltrating boarding facilities.

The guy says the place doesn't offer lessons, but after inquiring about her arm, he points her on to Mick, the barn manager, who has just moved down from Canada. Mick lives in a prefab home on the grounds, and Duxbury crams into its small entryway to talk with him. Mick is cordial but not particularly friendly. She chats him up for a moment--she bought her horse in Canada, she tells him--then leaves.

But she remains suspicious. "He's very sharp," she says of Mick as she heads back to her car. "He kept eye contact the entire time."

"Mick left me with a really bad taste in my mouth," she adds later. "His demeanor was unprofessional. He had no shoes on, and he didn't want to show us his barn."

Her gut tells her much is amiss at this ranch. Though the only thing even resembling horse abuse was a show horse lumbering around on legs that looked too small to support its bulk, for Duxbury, that's enough. "My instinct was right," she says. "I'm definitely going to have to make a return trip here. I have to get into those stables."

Duxbury founded Project Equus in 1995 as an offshoot of Animal Rights Mobilization, another organization she used to run. The new group has members nationwide, but its heart is a handful of committed volunteers in and around Denver.

The members of Project Equus oppose any horse-related activity that is "unnatural." To them, that's damn near everything: Carriage rides ("It's not natural for horses to be on pavement"), polo, horse shows, horse racing, even fox hunting.

Back in her fire-breathing days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Duxbury thought "horses shouldn't be ridden at all." But four years ago she "saved" a horse that had been abused, and because it was overweight, began riding it to get it back in shape. "I forced myself to ride him, and then I had to reassess," she says. That experience, along with a book by horse expert Jaime Jackson, now a Project Equus boardmember, prompted a change of heart.

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