JUSTICE FOR DUAL PEPPY: Former champion cutting horse found malnourished among dead horses in barn
Fifteen years ago, Dual Peppy was a well-known, well-muscled, world champion cutting stallion commanding $2,500 stud fees. Last week he was found, ribs showing through his hide, in a barn in Colorado, surrounded by the remains of 14 dead horses.
What happened between is still a mystery.
Monday, Sept. 22, the El Paso County Sheriff’s office removed 10 horses, including Dual Peppy, from the property just a few miles from the city limits of Colorado Springs. The horses and four llamas were transported to a large animal care facility, according to a press release from the El Paso County Sheriff’s office.
The owner of the horses, Sherri Brunzell, has been charged with cruelty to animals, a class one misdemeanor. Colorado also allows animal cruelty cases to be prosecuted as felonies, depending on whether the act of cruelty was intentional or reckless, according to a news report. The charges may change, depending on the result of the investigation. Sherri Brunzell’s hearing has been set for Dec. 31.
Dual Peppy started his life on a ranch in California. A son of AQHA Hall of Fame stallion Peppy San Badger and Miss Dual Doc, the sorrel stallion with three white socks and a distinctive blaze packs the GW freeze brand of Ward Ranches on his left hip. Dual Peppy is a full brother to cutting legend Dual Pep.
When news video of malnourished horses found standing in an equine graveyard began circulating, anyone who had known Dual Peppy recognized him immediately, and was outraged and sickened.
C.T. Babcock, son of Jim Babcock, of Babcock Ranches in Texas, said his dad recognized the horse from a video on Facebook. “He called and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ He was such a big, strong horse it made you sick to see the pictures of him. It was drastic.”
Jim Babcock said he and Brunzell were part of the Dual Peppy Partnership, which purchased Dual Peppy from the Wards and several brood mares from Kay Floyd in 1998.
Jim Babcock said the Brunzells had already owned horses. “When they came to me they wanted to step up and get a better quality of horses. We went out and put together a program of some of the best mares in the history of the NCHA (National Cutting Horse Association). They were some of the best mares and being bred to Dual Pep’s full brother, so we put together a heck of a program.” One of the mares was Playboys Madera, a world champion and NCHA Hall of Fame inductee. Another was world champion Play Like a Lena, out of Freckles Playboy and Havealena.
News reports say the Brunzells paid $650,000 for Dual Peppy, with the total cost of the horses being over $1.5 million.
Considering that deal was made 16 years ago, and Playboys Madera was foaled in 1982, and Play Like a Lena in 1985, most of the mares in that original program would be elderly now. No one is sure which horses were still under the Brunzells’ care.
Kay Floyd said she had heard what happened and couldn’t talk about it. “I’ve been around him (Dual Peppy) a lot too and it’s just real emotional. I’m totally confused why. I just can’t imagine something like this happening.”
Jason Clark trained and showed Dual Peppy while he was at the Babcock Ranch. “I think the Brunzells were just pretty green to the business and not very knowledgeable about the breeding program. Within one week they had about 10 Playboy mares or more and this real high-power stud. I think it was a little bit overhwelming for them.”
Clark said he gets a phone call from Rick Brunzell about once a year, just checking in. Brunzell called about a year ago, and Clark had no idea there were problems. “It sounds like a terrible tragedy. They were all in back then (when they got started). I don’t know what’s happened. It sure sounds like the train went off the rails though.”
The Babcock Ranch stood Dual Peppy at stud and managed the mares for a year and a half. While Dual Peppy was with the Babcocks he earned Reserve World Champion and Congress Champion. “He was one of those horses you look back on in your career–I’ve been training for 20 years–he’s one of those I’d sure like to have back,” Clark said. “He was a really sweet-minded horse, real special.”
Jim Babcock said Dual Peppy’s stall was 20 feet from his office. “I was close to him. I was at every show he ever went to. He was a gentle giant. He was big, he was strong, he was gentle, he was quiet, he was athletic. He would give his heart every time. No matter how many times we asked him to go cut, or how many we went to in a row he was always game for every trip.”
After a year and a half, the partnership ended and the Brunzells moved the horses elsewhere in Texas, then to Colorado. “It wasn’t on the best of terms when they left,” Jim Babcock said. “It was a disappointment when they took him away. I saw a few ads for him over the years, but I hadn’t followed him. This was the first time I’d heard of or seen him in 10-plus years.”
Clark speculates that Brunzell’s lack of experience and the ending of the partnership with Babcock may have left them without a clear direction. “Sherri was really trying to get educated. She had really good intentions. They had the money to just step into it and say this is what we want. A lot of times if people’s first introduction into the business goes south, if they’re that green, it’s just hard for them to take. Emotionally it just knocked the air out of them. They had such high hopes and had it so built up. They needed somebody to get behind them and say, ‘this is what you need to do.’ They didn’t know enough about the business to have a backup plan. I don’t think the problem was that the colts weren’t very good, I think they just didn’t know how to manage them. I think if they would have gone on and let somebody else help them, they would have worked out of it.”
According to AQHA records, Dual Peppy sired 351 registered foals, starting when he was a 2-year-old. In 2001, 43 of his registered offspring were born. The number of foals he sired steadily decreased from 2001 until 2009, when he sired only two foals. As of today, 51 of his offspring are still in the performance ring, and the horses he has sired have earned more than $700,000. Considering his stud fees were $2,500 in 2002, his stud fees alone have earned his owners nearly $800,000.
Most in the business say that should have guaranteed him a dignified retirement. “Most of the people who have this quality of horses give them a very nice retirement,” Jim Babcock said.
One of Babcocks’ stallions, Smart Chic Olena, became sterile at age 24, but Jim Babcock said the stallion was brushed and walked twice a day, so he still felt like he had a job. Reminic, another of his stallions, had a stroke when he was 25, but special care gave him a good life until he was 29. That’s a much more common retirement for horses like this, he said. “We respected those animals and took the very best care of them we could. Most people, with something they enjoyed and had fun with and profited from, they try to return the favor by taking care of them. If you’re a horse or animal lover, they come first. They can’t do it for themselves. We made them dependent on us and we’re responsible to them.”
No one is sure when or why that responsibility wavered for the Brunzells. According to the search warrant, Sherri Brunzell said the horses did not have a regular vet because of the expense and unsatisfactory results. “She felt it would be better to spend the money on feed for the horses than on veterinary bills,” it read.
The warrant said 14 skeletons were found in the barn, covered in tarps and lye. Sherri Brunzell said the horses had died of colic over the last year and a half and she didn’t have the money to properly dispose of them.
According to one veterinarian in the area, many horses are hauled to the landfill because most landowners don’t have enough property to bury the horses as the regulations require. The vet said it usually costs about $250 to dispose of a horse.
While the dead horses are a mystery, the fate of the live horses caught the world’s attention. The warrant read, “Inside the barn ten live horses were seen. They appeared to be in good health and weight except for two. These two horses were thin but not emaciated. The hooves on five of the horses were excessively long…Therefore based on the above described facts and circumstances, it is necessary to have the veterinarian used by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office in equine investigation cases, to examine the condition of the live horses.”
Dr. Randy Parker was called in by the sheriff’s office and recommended the remaining horses be removed from the Brunzells’ care. He said he had done some work for Sherri Brunzell about 15 years ago, but hadn’t seen the horses since.
Dr. Parker is an equine specialist and works with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office on most of their horse-related animal cruelty cases. “Sometimes I’ll go out and find out it’s just a thin horse and it’s difficult to put weight on. In those cases I’ll advise them of that and give them some tips. It’s usually pretty easy to determine abuse is going on.”
The sheriff’s office got the report of neglected horses on Friday, Sept. 19 and investigated. They determined that the horses had food and water and were not in immediate danger. Monday, Sept. 22 they returned with Dr. Parker and a search warrant.
“In this case it’s going to be difficult to determine exactly what happened so I think they did things right so far,” Dr. Parker said. “Once we were out there and able to investigate to the best of our abilities, it was determined that something wrong has happened here and we needed to get the horses in a safe place and try to find out exactly what happened.”
Once the story hit the news, it went viral. A Facebook page called Justice for Dual Peppy was started Sunday, Sept. 21 by Kellie Bliss. As of Thursday, Sept. 25, it had 26,500 “likes” and more than a million people from all over the world had seen the posts about Dual Peppy. The goal of the Facebook page originally was to raise awareness of the situation and to try to get the sheriff’s office to remove the live horses from the Brunzells’ care.
Horse lovers from around the country, both those who were associated with Dual Peppy, and those who had never heard of the horse, called the sheriff’s office, the AQHA, NCHA, governor of Colorado, Colorado state veterinarian’s office, El Paso County commissioners and anyone else they thought might help.
According to Sargent Greg White, public information officer with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, the public outcry was unnecessary. “We always intended to go back,” he said.
What the publicity did accomplish was getting the attention of the AQHA. An AQHA press release says, “Pursuant to AQHA Rule VIO200 no person shall treat any horse in a cruel or inhumane manner. Additionally, AQHA Rule VIO205 further provides that AQHA may accept the conviction of an individual or judicial confiscation for an offense of cruelty to or inhumane treatment of a horse as a presumptive violation of this rule as basis to automatically deny AQHA privileges.”
Based on those rules, Sherri Brunzell has been stripped of her AQHA membership. She will no longer be allowed any privileges of membership, which includes registering horses under her name or transferring registrations to her name. She also will not be allowed on the grounds of any AQHA show. The action further denies any membership privileges to any ID associated with her, including spouse, children or partnerships.
The question still unanswered, though, is “why?” “I truthfully was not happy with what I heard happened, but I don’t know the real facts on how that happened,” Jim Babcock said. “I feel sorry for the horse and I feel sorry for them because I know something has gone wrong in somebody’s life to get to that point. I think the egos we have make it hard to make that change from having money to having no money. Unless we’re turning to the Lord and understand that he’s got a plan for us, it’s hard to understand why you have money one day and no money the next day. I think the economic times have been tough on a lot of people.”
Many people have offered to donate money, and many, including Jim Babcock, have offered to take the horses or buy the horses and give them a good home.
“We’d love to have him back. We’d love to be able to take care of him, but that wasn’t our motivation. Our main motivation was to get him taken care of,” Jim Babcock said.
Until the investigation is finished, the horses will stay in the facility used for horses in these situations. Officials at that facility have asked to not be identified for the security of the horses and the integrity of the investigation. However, they did say they get a lot of horses in that are in the same or worse condition. They took care of 162 horses last year and adopted out about 40 percent of them. The remaining horses were returned to the agencies that brought them in, or are still in the facility because of ongoing investigations.
“My heart goes out to the horses and the people,” Jim Babcock said. “They definitely need somebody praying for them. I don’t know what it was that went wrong, but I hope their life gets turned around. I hope Dual Peppy’s life gets turned around.”