Just call her amazing Grace.
The 5-year-old sorrel survived at least two months in the depths of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, hobbled by a bad leg wound and unable to leave an area thick with deadfall.
Kay and Bill Whittle, the Cooke City couple who rescued Grace, surmised that she had been injured crossing the upper reaches of the Stillwater River, then cut loose by the man who owned her, 49-year-old Christopher Shaul.
The Whittles speculated that Shaul, who had come up the river from the Woodbine area, hoped to reach Cooke City, get some help and go back for his horse. He didn’t make it. Park County Cororner Al Jenkins estimated that Shaul died of exposure sometime in early to mid May.
Grace had plenty of water and plenty of food, at least after the snow melted in the meadow, but she was very thin and obviously in pain. Even so, she wasn’t at all skittish when the Whittles came upon her.
Kay Whittle said the sorrel never moved a muscle as her husband approached with a rope and halter.
“He just talked to her as he walked up to her,” she said. “And he put it on her. Once he did, she just laid her head on his chest. … It was like, ‘OK, you’ve come to get me. Let’s go.’”
After a long, difficult hike out of the wilderness, up a steep and sometimes difficult trail to where other Cooke City people were waiting with a truck and horse trailer, Grace reacted with the same calm patience, strolling directly into the trailer.
Whittle was at a loss for words as she tried to describe the effect Grace has had on everyone who has come into contact with her.
“Her spirit, her drive … she just never gave up. She never did,” Whittle said. “She is just amazing. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Whittle is a deputy Park County coroner. She and her husband own the Antlers Lodge in Cooke City and both are members of the Cooke City search and rescue team. Kay is also an EMT.
In June, the Whittles had helped Park County law enforcement in the recovery of Shaul, whose body was found by snowmobilers at the top of Daisy Pass, near Cooke City at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet. Jenkins said Shaul was originally from Alabama and was known to have spent time in Tennessee and California as well as Montana.
It was known that he was on horseback because a saddle and other gear were found near his body. Authorities also knew he had a dog, and two weeks after Shaul’s body was found, the Whittles and other search and rescue people found the lifeless dog not far from his owner.
“We buried the dog, right around there,” Kay Whittle said.
Forest Service searchers had been looking for the horse, too, Kay said, but it wasn’t until July 13 that some hikers finally spotted the horse, at the head of Abundance Valley alongside the Stillwater River, which is more of a creek at that point.
The Whittles, who were notified of the discovery by Jenkins, decided to go in the next day, on July 14, because they knew they could mobilize quickly. They rode a four-wheeler to the edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and went on foot from there. The hikers told them the horse was four miles in. Kay Whittle said the odometer on her watch pegged the distance at 4.2 miles.
“We were excited,” she said. “We’re both animal lovers. We have two horses.”
The horse was about 100 yards away when they spotted her. Bill Whittle had brought along some basic supplies, including painkillers, salve, wraps and the halter and lead rope. They figured the horse would be skittish at best, possibly ornery, Kay said, but Grace just stood there calmly.
“We were prepared for everything but what we encountered,” she said.
Bill Whittle, walking up with the halter, saw that the horse’s back right leg was badly injured, with a big, open wound. After Bill did what he could for her, they radioed Bob and Deb Purvis, who planned to meet them with the truck and trailer if the Whittles managed to get the horse out of the wilderness.
Kay said her husband was worried that people would think they were crazy even for attempting to walk the horse out, bad as her wound was, but he didn’t know what else to do. They took turns leading her. The first part of the trail, rising up sharply from the canyon where Grace had spent so much time, was the hardest.
The horse kept avoiding rocks, and whenever she was forced to put her weight down on one, it was clearly painful.
“It didn’t take much coaxing, but you could tell it hurt,” Kay said. The trail was frequently blocked by downed trees, which the Whittles cleared with a hand saw—all they could bring into the wilderness area.
When it came time to cross over the Stillwater River, with rushing water up to the Whittles’ knees, Grace was at her most reluctant, but she crossed it.
“She knew she had to do it,” Kay said. “That’s what Bill kept saying.”
When they reached the four-wheeler at the edge of the wilderness, they still had a long way to go because the four-wheeler was able to penetrate farther than the Purvises could with their truck and trailer. Kay said Grace walked about nine miles that day.
Bill rode ahead to meet the Purvises while Kay continued to lead Grace out. Deb Purvis, owner of the Beartooth Café in Cooke City, came back with Bill on the four-wheeler and spelled Kay for a while.
Like the Whittles, Deb quickly learned to admire Grace’s indomitable spirit. On the last leg of the hike, with one big hill to go, Grace was walking so fast that Deb handed the lead rope to 17-year-old Tessa Wilson, figuring she could keep up. Tessa, whose parents, Troy and Beth Wilson, own the Cooke City General Store, had joined the Purvises when they drove to meet the Whittles.
When they reached the truck, Deb said, Grace “hopped right in the horse trailer. She was in a lot of pain and she was starving, but she was the friendliest and most cooperative horse I’d ever seen.”
Grace spent the night in a pen next to the Purvises’ horses. Kay Whittle didn’t get home until nearly 9 p.m., when she called her boss, Coroner Jenkins, to report mission accomplished. “He was ecstatic,” she said.
Until that point, Kay didn’t know what the horse’s name was. When Jenkins told her it was Grace, “I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s perfect. That’s absolutely perfect.’”
The rescue “was a good thing to come out of something really bad,” Kay said, because Cooke City is so tiny and everyone was familiar with the death of Grace’s owner.
The next morning, two weeks ago today, the Purvises loaded Grace into the trailer again and took her to the Yellowstone Vet Center in Livingston, where she has been under the care of Dr. Jim Murray.
“She’s got a relatively long convalescence,” Murray said Thursday, “but I think she’s going to do fairly well.”
He has been treating her wound with a therapy laser, which he said has been a “tremendous benefit for her.” On Thursday, he said, “she was running and bucking coming into the feed bunk.”
Grace has been “just a joy to work with … a real sweetheart,” he added.
Jenkins said the county officially owns Grace, after obtaining a bill of sale from Shaul’s family in Alabama, and has been paying all her veterinary bills. More than 20 people offered to adopt Grace, Jenkins said, but nearly all of them withdrew the offer when told they would have to pay for her medical care to date and for continued care.
Only two people are still interested, Jenkins said—Deb Purvis and an unnamed resident of Stillwater County who knew Shaul. Jenkins said he planned to meet with both parties, then present his findings next Tuesday to the Park County Commission, which will decide who gets to adopt Grace.
“I’m trying to do my best for this horse,” Jenkins said. “She’s a sweetheart.”
Here is the video Kay Whittle shot of her husband Bill first approaching Grace in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness: