Diane McCracken delicately makes her way down a muddy slope in the pasture to where two horses stand huddled in the corner. They stand side by side, back to front, using their tails to swish flies away from each other’s faces.
The small black mare, Raven, and the chestnut colt, Robin, came to Spring Creek Horse Rescue from a feedlot, where they were crammed in with many other horses in tight pens, headed for a slaughterhouse. But they look up and move closer as McCracken calls to them and talks to them.
Raven and Robin are far from the first horses McCracken has taken in – she has been running the no-kill horse rescue for 44 years with the help of locals and volunteers.
But during the COVID-19 shutdown, volunteers for the Durango rescue returned to their home states to care for elderly relatives, or didn’t want to spread the virus at the farm.
She cared for 27 horses and miniature donkeys on her own.
“It was getting pretty hard,” McCracken said. “You just do it.”
The herd at the horse rescue shows she’s not one to give up on animals – or people. One horse, a gray named Samuel, has knees blown out so bad he can barely walk. He was overridden in show arenas and sold when the previous owners felt they had no use for him anymore.
Under McCracken’s care, he is 44 years old and enjoying life in Durango.
“Other people would say he’s taking up space,” McCracken said. “But doesn’t he deserve a chance?”
An Appaloosa horse named Colton came to the rescue after he was beaten by a previous owner as a young colt. McCracken watched him grow up on her farm and become a happy, healthy horse.
When visitors walk into the barn, the first thing they see is a looming gray horse, Watchman, calling out a greeting and calling for attention. But the same horse was “scared of everything, skinny with bad feet” when he first arrived, McCracken said.
She will do the same for Robin and Raven, the horses from the feedlot, who are sick and have worms.
“How do you explain to people the importance of that without them seeing it and feeling it themselves?” McCracken said.
A lot of the ranch hands who come to Spring Creek Horse Rescue are assigned volunteer hours through the local court system. Once they learn more about the horse rescue and what it can do for these animals, some get attached to the horses and want to work with them, McCracken said.
“They need the horses, and the horses need them,” she said. She watched one volunteer learn where he needed to go instead of drifting – to veterinary school.
McCracken started college with the goal of becoming a vet but found she didn’t have the heart to operate on animals.
“I have been bringing animals home since I was 4 years old,” McCracken said. “Snakes, cats, dogs … they all deserve a chance.”
McCracken brought her reputation as an animal caregiver from Detroit to Durango. About 40 years ago, a local quarter horse breeder had a mare accidentally step on a foal. It needed extra care, so he brought it to McCracken. The rest was history.
“Everybody knew everybody. It didn’t take long to get the word out,” McCracken said.
On a farm that size, McCracken doesn’t just care for horses. She also needs help with ranch chores like tree clearing, fence mending and irrigation. Those responsibilities don’t stop during a pandemic, but the nonprofit rescue currently doesn’t have the financial capacity to pay workers.
The COVID-19 shutdown hit people in the community hard economically, so donations are down at the rescue, too.
“We didn’t have irrigation water for a month,” McCracken said.
With the responsibility of 29 horses on her shoulders, McCracken said what she could really use is safe fencing along the bottom of the property so she could let the horses out without worrying they will fall into the drainage ditch that runs along the south side of the pastures.
Without fencing to block off the steep, concrete water ditch, McCracken can only use 10% of the rescue property.
“There used to be a lot more skilled horse people, but all the agricultural horse people have left for Wyoming and Idaho,” McCracken said.
The number of new developments in Colorado and the high price of land have driven them away, she said.
“But this is still my home, and we make other people’s lives better because of the horses we’ve saved,” McCracken said.