The Horse Soldier

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.

Now Duxbury believes riding horses is okay--as long as it's done on a natural surface and the rider strives to study the horse's body language and emulate the animal's natural movements. But she still smells trouble down on the farm. Project Equus's chief aim is ferreting out horse abuse, which Duxbury breaks down into three areas: trainers who physically abuse horses to break them; people who use implements, especially bits, that are painful to the animals; and owners who don't take proper care of their horse's nutritional and health needs. Project Equus is also running a campaign to outlaw Premarin, a drug used to treat symptoms of menopause that is made from the urine of pregnant mares. Duxbury and others feel the manner in which the urine is collected is cruel--mares are confined to narrow stalls for months at a time, their intake of drinking water is restricted, and their urethras are fitted with rubber collection cups.

Few Colorado horse lovers share Duxbury's view of the horse as an endangered species--or as a species in danger. "As in anything, there are people out there who have chosen to abuse animals in some of their training process," says Stan Sours, a lobbyist for the Colorado Horse Council, which represents the horse industry. However, he adds that horse abuse in Colorado is very rare.

But Duxbury insists that "Project Equus is absolutely mandatory. Sheriff's departments, law enforcement--they don't know much about animal abuse or horse abuse. There aren't enough people to get into all the barns in the Front Range, let alone Colorado or the United States."

So she has made it her business to get into barns and wherever else horses roam. She and four other Project Equus "investigators" attempt to acquire evidence of abuse and turn it over to authorities.

Project Equus has failed to bring a single trainer or horse owner to court so far. However, the group has been called upon to provide prosecutors with information on horses and has been indirectly involved with two animal-cruelty convictions in Colorado. The most visible case occurred in Jefferson County in 1995, when trainer Jesus Quinonez was convicted on a misdemeanor animal-cruelty charge and sentenced to fifty hours of community service. Quinonez, a practitioner of a Mexican method of horse training called charro, kicked and whipped a slow-moving colt, witnesses testified in court.

To listen to Duxbury talk about horses is to recognize her sincerity and knowledge. It is also a bit like watching a professor lecture on an arcane subject dear to her heart while missing the fact that the entire class has fallen asleep.

Duxbury openly admits that she has no social life. She spends her spare time with her horse, she says. Once while on vacation, she saw a horse grazing too close to Highway 285. She got out of the car and took him back to his pen before continuing on her way.

Duxbury conducts herself as if she were one step ahead of an angry mob of horse trainers. There's no evidence to suggest that the horse industry has it in for her, but she's not taking any chances. "I don't think people are shadowing me, and they're not looking over my shoulder all the time," she says. "But I'm cautious. I'm dedicated, not paranoid."

It can be hard to tell. For instance, she won't reveal the name of her horse, a black gelding, or where he is stabled, lest her enemies catch wind and plot against him. "I have really good reason to be concerned," she says. "Some of these people are very unscrupulous. Horse people can be very ruthless."

The last time Duxbury was on TV was 1995, after the Quinonez trial. Today, she "prays that people will forget my name."

To that end, she does not divulge where she lives. She uses three cars when she goes out to investigate ranches, rotating them so that none become familiar. She's careful who she calls. "I don't have secure phone lines," she explains.

Duxbury uses a phony name, as well as a multitude of disguises. She has glasses and sunglasses. She has the arm sling. She has wigs, including one that is "semi-permanent" for extended jobs. There are days of no makeup and days of bright-red lipstick. Robin Duxbury with makeup, though, looks suspiciously like Robin Duxbury with no makeup.

A longtime opponent who battled with her back when they both were members of the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies says Duxbury's caution may be justified. "Her paranoia is probably intelligent paranoia," says Rob "Dr. Rob" Hilsenroth, who formerly served as the pet-health expert for KUSA-TV/ Channel 9. "She knows people are out to get her. She just has a kind of temperament where she gets under your skin and pisses you off. Pretty soon people are going to get pissed off at her."

Duxbury says she doesn't wear disguises that often. But there have been times when one would have come in handy. In an El Paso County barn in 1994, back in the days when Project Equus was just an idea, Duxbury was taking a horse-riding lesson when someone recognized her face from television. "He grabbed me by the shoulder and popped me in the eye," she recalls.

Another time she investigated a claim of abuse in unincorporated Arapahoe County. She approached the pen in question and took photographs to send to John Maulsby, the assistant state veterinarian.

"A guy came to the door at the house next to the pen," she says, "and he started yelling at me. I ignored him, and then he came running out in just his pants. He grabbed a rake and came after me."

Maulsby says he's investigated more than ten trainers at Duxbury's suggestion. None of them have ever been taken to court, but Maulsby says he's still glad Duxbury's around. "Robin is one of those people who really keeps an eye on things," he says.

Most of the tips Duxbury gets on the Project Equus hotline don't pan out. "For every dozen or so phone calls," she admits, "maybe one is legit." Not long ago she checked on a complaint that Colorado Horse Rescue, a group that rescues unwanted horses, wasn't allowing pre-purchase examinations of the animals by vets. She went undercover and called the group on behalf of her "ten-year-old daughter." It turned out there was no problem.

Some people appear to enjoy sending Duxbury on wild goose chases. One call led her to an open field in Erie. There was no sign of a horse.

During another phone call this summer, Duxbury was sure she was being set up. "Someone complained about a trainer I knew," she says. "I think the woman was with some horse association that doesn't like what we were doing. So much of what she was saying was so implausible."

Sharon Jackson, one of Duxbury's colleagues at Project Equus, notes that "Robin has always been a colorful character. She's always run in where angels feared to tread." Jackson speaks as if her friend faces doom around the corner of every stable. And there's concern in Duxbury's voice as she talks about the planned infiltration of a large barn in Adams County.

Many horse owners look to buy hay after Christmas, she says, so she plans to pass herself off as one of them. There are rumors of weapons-stockpiling at this stable and of an owner who won't tolerate intruders. That owner, she adds, once "mentioned me by name," according to a source who used to work there. "He remembered me from the Quinonez trial.

"It's the most potentially risky thing I've done since I started."

Over at the Colorado Horse Council, the verdict is in on Project Equus's stealth approach. Sours has little use for it.

"It's probably an improper way of trying to address something that may be a problem," he says. "I'm one of the first to admit we do have some problems. [But] if there are abuses, they should be confronted up front and through proper channels."

No one else in the horse-investigation business engages in covert ops as much as Duxbury. "We have not done any undercover investigations to date," says Bob Rhode, executive director of the Denver Dumb Friends League. Neither has the local chapter of the American Humane Association.

"I do what it takes to get the job done within legal limits," Duxbury explains. And four times since Project Equus began, its efforts have paid modest dividends. Last September, prosecutors in Arizona asked for technical advice after two trainers trying to work with a horse "chased the horse around the pen," says Duxbury. "The horse got entangled; his hind legs were caught. They lassoed his neck and tried to pull him out. The horse came off the ground with a crushed windpipe." The pair were fined and sentenced to community service.

Equus also got a call from California prosecutors over the strange case of Zooloog, a would-be Olympic steed who allegedly got the worst of a vicious custody battle. When his two trainers, Tom Valter and Denise McMillan, broke up, says Duxbury, Zooloog was sent to a ranch in Las Vegas, where he allegedly was abused by two other trainers. He was then sent back to Valter, who, Duxbury claims, "used whatever force to get the horse ready for the '96 Olympic trials," including an electric prod. Valter was convicted last spring on four counts of animal cruelty, and the two Las Vegas trainers received custody of Zooloog.

Now Denise McMillan wants to fly Duxbury and company out to Las Vegas to investigate the Nevada trainers, but Duxbury is skeptical. "We grossly underestimated how much time it would take" to conduct an investigation, she says. "We can't just catch you once. We have to develop a pattern."

Two cases occurred closer to home. One involved an El Paso County horse trainer who was convicted of animal cruelty for whipping a horse. Duxbury says that Project Equus again provided information on horses to local prosecutors. The trainer received 100 hours of community service.

Then there was the Quinonez case, in which the horse was beaten so badly it had to be killed. After charges were filed against Quinonez but before his arraignment, Duxbury issued so-called Action Alerts nationwide to some 15,000 animal-rights activists, who in turn inundated the Jefferson County District Attorney's office with letters and phone calls, pressing for a vigorous prosecution.

Quinonez was convicted on one count of animal cruelty but was acquitted on the more serious charge that he had whacked the horse over the head with a two-by-four.

Duxbury has "fond memories" of her days as a fur hater and prairie-dog lover. Today she says she's shifted from radical animal-rights activist to moderate animal-welfare activist. But the reputation she forged through years of radical protest still comes back to haunt her.

"Have my values changed?" she asks. "No. My approach, my methods, my tactics have changed." Convincing those in the horse world that she's mellowed, though, is an uphill climb. "Project Equus is very professional," says Duxbury. "It's not fun and games. It should be taken seriously. I have a past reputation I have to live down for a while."

"No one is more horrified at that image than Robin," adds Sharon Jackson. "But how do you deal with that? I told her she has to make a new legend."

Duxbury grew up in New York, the daughter of a registered nurse who was a "dyed-in-the-wool liberal" and a Republican father "who still believes Nixon was framed." Her family moved to Denver in 1965, and she attended the University of Colorado in the 1970s, dropping out after two years. She worked odd jobs--"I was basically a bum"--until going to work for a medical company involved in animal research. Soon afterward she was in a pet shop cooing at a bunny rabbit when a woman pointed to the fur coat Duxbury was wearing at the time. "You're cuddling that rabbit when you've got Thumper's whole family on your back," the woman told her. It was an epiphany of sorts, and Duxbury changed tack.

She dove into animal-rights activism, and it didn't take long for her to begin making waves. Her impatience with groups that preferred negotiation to direct action became well-known, and even other activists began to view her as extreme. "She just alienated all of her potential allies in the humane societies," remembers Rob Hilsenroth. "She alienates stock producers, she alienates veterinarians, she alienates humane groups."

After graduating from Loretto Heights College with a degree in English, Duxbury went to work for a private investigator who specialized in insurance fraud. "He was the epitome of a Colombo," she recalls. "Disorganized. He looked like a bum." From him she learned the arm-in-the-sling gag, among other tactics.

In 1986 Duxbury and two others formed the Rocky Mountain Humane Society. In 1988 she first used a wig and phony name as part of an attempt to covertly gather information on Mary Kay. She was invited to a huge house in Cherry Hills Village for a party, and when the company held its annual meeting in Denver that year, she and her RMHS cohorts turned out in droves with banners and bullhorns to protest the proceedings. The event inspired cartoonist Breathed to title a Bloom County book The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos.

Duxbury's group had its share of unusual fights. In 1990 it managed to get the Denver Zoo to cancel elephant and camel rides. Zoo officials claimed they were already considering dropping the attractions but said pressure from Duxbury's group accelerated the decision. The RMHS also wanted to ban balloons at the zoo, fearing they would float away and into the mouths of unsuspecting animals, who would swallow them and die. Duxbury was quoted at the time as saying, "What kind of lasting pleasure do kids get from balloons, anyway? Kids scream for them, and their parents buy them to shut them up." (Though the zoo didn't change its policy then, balloons have since been banned.)

RMHS was most successful staging several "Fur Free Friday" events in Denver, including one in 1990 with Breathed that attracted more than 400 protesters. By this time the group was gaining national prominence, and Duxbury showed up in the pages of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. In 1991, when Hilsenroth prepared a paper on the subject of "humaniacs"--overzealous activists--she willingly posed for a photograph.

But according to former RMHS member Jeff Young, egos soon ruined everything. Young was a hunter and fisher who was attending vet school at Colorado State University when he befriended Duxbury, who helped remake him as a vegetarian and committed activist.

"You can't preach ethics to people and not have ethics, and that's where Robin fell down a lot," Young says. He claims that Duxbury once ordered followers to cut up their Neiman Marcus credit cards to protest the company's use of fur clothing, while "she went out and charged hers to the max. She charged up all her credit cards, then filed for bankruptcy."

"My husband had the credit cards," Duxbury responds. "So what if I used them? I don't even think I had a Neiman Marcus card. I had a Lord & Taylor card, but I cut it up."

RMHS fell apart in 1991, the same year Duxbury joined Animals Rights Mobilization, which had recently moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado. At about the same time, troubles in her personal life took her off the scene. She went through a divorce after ten years of marriage, and her older brother, Jonathon, a successful engineer and businessman in Simi Valley, California, was found beaten to death in his office. The murder remains unsolved.

The personal tragedy left Duxbury feeling burned out. "The last thing I wanted to focus on was animal rights," she says. "I'd done my thing for God and country with animal rights."

It wasn't until 1994 that she got back in the saddle.

Duxbury says she expects Project Equus to help spark a "major revolution in horse training" within the next five years. But the work is slow. On another recent afternoon, she sits in her car watching horses playing on a ranch in Boulder County. She's heard that the trainers here beat the horses when they take them in for the day, and it's a lonely 45 minutes waiting in the cold to see if any horses will be abused. None of them are.

A week later Duxbury comes up empty at a ranch in Golden, then decides to embark on an impromptu snooping expedition. Up the street is a ranch as empty as the first, but a mile on, she strikes paydirt at a boarding facility where some of the horses are kept in an open-air stable that's in terrible shape. Nails protrude from cracked wood that looks like it could be torn apart with little effort.

One horse has four one-inch gray scars on its nose--a clear sign, Duxbury says, that its nose band was fastened too tight. She hasn't caught anyone in the act, but she seizes the opportunity to take pictures, rushing back to the car to grab the spy camera.

"I couldn't have asked for better spacing or scarring," she says, excited. Then she shoots a half-dozen close-up pictures of the horse's snout. Before leaving, she tells the animal, "I promise I'll help you if I can in the future.

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T.R. Witcher

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