JACKSON HOLE – After a two-day trial on February 12-13, Judge James L. Radda today found Forest Stearns, 64, not guilty on charges of Animal Cruelty.
Stearns was arrested and put on trial after a video of him hogtying a packhorse in his string surfaced on social media.
Stearns claimed he was trying to deal with an unruly horse in order to get one last shoe on it. Stearns sedated the horse before stretching it out with ropes between two posts and, according to a necropsy, may have overdosed the horse with Rompun, and later, Dormosedan, contributing to its death.
Despite testimony from seven witnesses called by the state, including Mary Wendell Lampton who took the short video, Radda said the state had not proven its case.
At the trial
Stearns owned the horse called Buddy for about two years. In all that time, no one had ever ridden him and he had never been shod. The four-year-old gelding was used solely to pack. On August 8, 2017, Stearns decided to shoe the horse and called Jason Clapp to do the job, warning him that the horse was very sketchy especially about its rear legs due to an old injury.
Clapp managed to get three shoes on the horse but all the while noticed Buddy was extremely tense. He felt the horse would come “unglued” at any moment. Just as Clapp was about to put the fourth shoe on, a “biblical deluge,” as described by the farrier, made the horse even spookier. Clapp decided to get out of the rain and let the horse calm down a little.
After about 90 minutes, Clapp returned to the job and Stearns, with verbal permission over the phone from veterinarian Ken Griggs, dosed the horse again since it was showing no visible signs of being drugged. After 20 minutes, with the horse still not acting like it was any calmer, Stearns hit it again with Dormosedan, which he had handy in a field bag.
When Clapp went to put on the last shoe, Buddy kicked it out of his hands and across the round pen. Clapp retrieved it, tried a second time, and the horse again kicked Clapp, injuring his hand and spilling out the contents of his toolbox. Clapp told Stearns he was leaving to finish the job the next day.
Stearns decided to finish the job himself for two reasons. He had a horse with unclinched nails sticking out of all three shoes that were on (Clapp does not clinch the nails until all four feet are done), and Stearns said he needed the horse to be in Union Pass by 10am the next day for training.
By now, Stearns admitted the horse was “on the fight” and real “watchy.” Stearns then saddled Buddy with a packsaddle in order to have a place to tie off his ropes when he scotched the horse. Scotching is a process of tying up a hind leg to hobble a horse and make it easier to “throw” to the ground.
After getting the horse down, Stearns testified it never softened. It never relented, but instead was even more “on the fight.” Stearns chained the rear hind leg to get the last shoe on it, which he managed to do as Buddy kicked out at least three more times. While clinching nails on the rear foot, Lampton showed up with a cell phone to take her video.
Lampton admitted she knew nothing of the attempts that had been made to shoe the horse up to that point. In the 65-second video she can be heard telling Stearns, “Forest, I know about training horses. I had polo horses for years. You are abusive to your horses.”
After turning stopping the video recording, Lampton testified she asked Stearns, “Do you have to be this cruel in order to feel powerful?”
Stearns reportedly mumbled something about attempting to shoe the horse, after which Lampton replied, “I’ve never heard of anyone who has tried to shoe a horse upside-down.”
As Stearns went to finish clinching the front feet, the horse let out a huge shudder—a death throe—and died. Stearns said that was about 5:45pm, shortly after Lampton took the video.
“The horse checked out on me,” Stearns told the judge. Stearns said he then walked over to the fence and said, “Darn, Buddy, may the great spirit receive your soul.”
After finishing vetting other horses and making a few phone calls, Stearns then backed a trailer in place to put Buddy in it. He finished clinching the nails on the dead horse, telling Judge Radda, “If he’s going to horse heaven, he may as well go with the job done right.”
Stearns timeline differs with Lampton’s, who said she saw the horse alive at 8:30pm—tied stretched out all that time. In his judgment, filed today, Radda said Lampton’s testimony as to the timeline was not persuasive and other testimony she gave “suggests that she may not accurately recall what she saw on the defendant’s property.”
Lampton was also considered a bias witness since she reportedly told a neighbor Stearns “should have his balls and penis cut off and shoved down his throat.”
Lampton’s landlord Lindsey Shaw also confirmed she thought Buddy was still alive at about 8pm. She heard the horse whinnying and crying, she said under oath. Stearns lawyer, Richard Mulligan suggested this was likely a particularly vocal mule named Barney that was making a lot of noise that night.
In Stearns’ version, Buddy was tied down for about 40-45 minutes. In the testimony of Clapp, who returned for a tool at about 6:30pm, Buddy was stretched out for more like two hours. Going on Lampton and Shaw’s testimony, the horse was laid out for more than three hours.
Radda’s decision concluded that Stearns did not knowingly and with intent to cause death, injury or suffering—unnecessarily or cruelly torment or injure Buddy.