Divine Intervention: The Story of SAU’s Stolen Horses and a Hero

March 15, 2022


When five of Southern Arkansas University’s rodeo team horses were stolen on November 2, 2011, Coach Rusty Hayes demonstrated that he is not one to stand back and let someone else figure out how to fix a problem. Instead, after the terrible discovery of the thefts that morning, Rusty immediately went into action. Over the next month, he repeatedly went to the mat for his rodeo team and the stolen horses. By now, most people know the story and have probably heard some of the gruesome details surrounding Credit Card’s death. The entire SAU family is devastated by a degree of wickedness that few can or want to comprehend. But there is another part to the story of SAU’s stolen horses that needs to be remembered and shared. It is not my story to tell, really, but I will try to do justice to it and to those who lived, or did not live, through it. Like all good stories, this one begins in the middle.

Shortly after the recovery of four of the five stolen horses, Rusty was asked how he, the Sheriff of McCurtain County, Johnny Tadlock, and Ashley Mills, owner of Badger, one of the stolen horses, were able to find them. He replied without hesitation: “It was divine intervention.” You see, acting on information received from Sheriff Tadlock, Rusty and Ashley had carefully orchestrated a plan for finding the horses. The plan involved hauling Ashley’s mare and a young gelding to the area they planned to search. Once there, they intended to separate the two, knowing they would likely nicker back and forth. Rusty and Ashley hoped that the nickering would, in turn, prompt any stolen horses that were in the woods to nicker also.

On the night in question, Rusty and Ashley met Sheriff Tadlock at the search location during a bad rainstorm. They backed their trailer down a muddy logging road, parked, tied the two horses to the trailer, and then waited for a couple of hours. They waited until the two horses had grown attached and accustomed to the strange place. Finally, it was time to put the plan into action.

As though on cue, the storm suddenly subsided; the sky cleared, the stars shone brightly, and the air grew perfectly still. These were the exact conditions necessary for the sound of nickering to carry and be heard. According to plan, Rusty led the gelding away from the mare still tied to the trailer and tied him down the road. The gelding nickered to Ashley’s mare; she nickered back. The night held its breath. Then, as though on cue, a third horse nickered, Ashley’s mare arched her back, pricked her ears forward, and stared intently in the direction of the dark woods. She recognized the voice of Badger, her stable buddy, calling from where he stood tied to a tree.

Rusty scrambled through the pine thicket, searching for what he hoped would be the five stolen horses. Sadly, he found only four—all were thin, all had been tied to trees and left to die, but all were alive. One by one, Rusty located and led them to the trailer, where they were loaded. Sheriff Tadlock followed Rusty into the dense thicket. It was he who led the last one to safety. When all were safely on board, Rusty closed the door behind them. A soft tremor moved through the trailer as the rescued four sighed deeply—prayers, no doubt, for the absent fifth. The well-wrought plan had unfolded precisely as it had been choreographed. Thank goodness for the stillness of the night. Just as they pulled out of the logging road, as though on cue, the storm blew up again. Ashley and Rusty exchanged looks of amazement as he turned on the windshield wipers. Divine intervention, indeed.

Since the day the horses were stolen, I have been in awe of how my colleague Rusty Hayes has handled the situation. I can only imagine the horror he felt when he realized that the horses had been stolen. I can only imagine how helpless he felt searching for those horses as though for needles in haystacks. I can only imagine how horrified he was to find only four of the missing five. I can only imagine how exhausted and emotionally and physically drained he must be now. I share this story to honor my colleague and to recognize him for stepping up and doing what had to be done for the good of the horses, for the good of their owners, and the good of Southern Arkansas University’s Rodeo Team.

There are few people I can think of who would have done all that Rusty did so quickly, so willingly, and so tirelessly.

Since the recovery of the four horses and the discovery of Credit Card, the fifth horse who didn’t make it home, thousands of people from across the country, in our community, in the SAU family, and the homes of the owners of the stolen horses, have been trying to make sense of the inexplicable cruelty and violence carried out by the thieves. But how does one make sense of such wickedness? Perhaps the best any of us can do is meditate on the events of that stormy night, which made possible the recovery of the four stolen horses. For on that evening, the voice of a higher power, however one chooses to imagine it, spoke as clearly as day through the silence of the night and said: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10).

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