By Tracy Demetropolis
DESERT HILLS – Last Wednesday, just before 6 p.m., Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies (MCSO) responded to the scene of a horse vs. car accident near 7th Street and Maddock Road in Desert Hills, a MCSO spokesperson said. The horse died on the scene, and the driver of the vehicle that hit the horse was treated for minor injuries, MCSO said.
The horse who was killed was Aspen, a 10-year-old bay mare who was registered with the American Quarter Horse Association. She belonged to Anthem resident Kristy Frankel and her family. Aspen was boarded at CnC Performance Horses on Maddock Road. CnC owner, Cortney Morris, said Frankel’s 17-year-old daughter and a friend had left CnC just before the accident to go trail riding on the nearby state trust land. They were planning to lead the two horses across 7th street, rather than ride them. Morris said she asks some of her boarders to do this for safety reasons.
One of the gates that allows residents to access to the state land is located across from the stop sign at 7th Street and Maddock. Frankel, speaking on behalf of her daughter, said Aspen spooked for an unknown reason, escaped from her daughter and ran into traffic.
Morris said she ran to the scene shortly after the accident. When she arrived, she saw that Aspen was dead. Morris tried to reach the girls on the opposite side of the street to console them and help them get back across the busy road.
“Aspen was laying in the middle of the street, and I was screaming and waving to try to get people to stop. Some people did but some just kept on driving,” Morris said. “I couldn’t get the girls across the road because of traffic.”
Morris said she was – and still is – furious at the lack of respect given to riders in the area, even though Desert Hills is a well-known horse community.
“People without horses are moving in, and that’s just reality. It’s growth. But they need to slow down,” Morris said. “Drivers never stop for us. It’s state law that if you see horses near the road you are supposed to slow down or stop.”
The law Morris is referring to is ARS 28-858, which states that motorists: “Shall exercise reasonable precaution to prevent frightening and to safeguard the animals and to ensure the safety of persons riding or driving the animals. If the animals appear frightened, the person in control of the vehicle shall reduce its speed and if requested by signal or otherwise shall not proceed further toward the animals unless necessary to avoid accident or injury until the animals appear to be under control.”
Another law, ARS 28-625 states: “A person riding an animal or driving an animal-drawn vehicle on a roadway has all of the rights….”
While the incident appears to have been a tragic accident, some residents took to social media that night and the days afterward speculating on what had happened. Many believed that speeding, distracted driving or some other offense was to blame for the accident. They demanded to know why there was no crosswalk or horse-crossing signs near the accident scene and other locations in Desert Hills that are frequented by equestrians. Once the facts of the accident emerged, many residents were still calling for drivers on 7th Street and other streets in the area to slow down and show some respect for equestrians.
Morris said that not only do most drivers not slow down, some people do even worse.
“Some drivers will honk at riders to see if they can get the horses to spook. They think it’s funny,” she said. “The speed limit is 45 mph, and I swear, nobody goes 45.”
Driving down 7th Street, drivers will see occasional signs indicating equestrians could be present, but Morris said she doubts many people notice them. There is no such signage where some residents say it is needed the most – near 7th Street and Maddock.
Due to the holiday on Monday, the Maricopa County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) was only able to issue a general statement regarding residents’ traffic concerns. A MCDOT employee said the traffic situation on 7th Street will be looked at more carefully when employees return to work.
The statement read: “MCDOT’s number one priority is safety, and we encourage the public to contact us if they have a concern. When MCDOT is made aware of a roadway concern, we look at the situation and evaluate the need for traffic studies that can help us understand the traffic needs in that area. These studies help us understand if improvements, such as signs, crossings or other traffic-control devices are needed.”
Jessica Connelley, who lives on Maddock Road, said she often rides her horse to the state land. She said she always waits several minutes to cross 7th Street, adding that cars don’t stop, slow down or even look for equestrians near the road.
“People just drive down 7th Street with tunnel vision,” Connelley said. “They don’t pay attention to the sides of the road. People need to use their peripheral vision.”
Christy Landwehr, CEO of the Certified Horsemanship Association, said drivers need to slow down when horses are near the road or on the shoulder.
“Drivers need to understand that horses are prey animals,” she said. “When they get frightened, their instinct is to run. They don’t reason before they make decisions. They are flight animals.”
For that reason, Landwehr suggests that drivers be courteous and stop to allow equestrians to cross a road. Stopped cars should put on their hazards to indicate to other cars that they are stopped.
While some people might say that horses who “spook” don’t belong near roads, Landwehr said there is, “No such thing as a bomb-proof horse. No horses are spook-proof.”
While many people in Desert Hills are heartbroken over Aspen, some hope that her death will bring attention to the problems facing area equestrians who just want to enjoy their horses safely.
“I’m so heartbroken over Aspen, but I’m also thankful that those two girls – and nobody else – got hurt or killed,” Morris said.
Aspen will likely be remembered by many Desert Hills residents for some time. Frankel, who said they bought Aspen one year ago, said she will never forget her.
Aspen was her daughter’s high school rodeo horse and the two competed in barrel-racing events. Aspen had competed all over the state and had even gone to Nevada to compete in her first big event, Buckles and Barrels for Bailey, an annual charity barrel race in Las Vegas, she said.
Frankel describes Aspen as “one in a million,” adding that her other daughter, who is 12, also loved and cared for Aspen.
“Aspen was a huge part of our family and was deeply loved by all of us,” Frankel said. “After school, the girls were always rushing to get their homework done so they could go spend time at the barn with Aspen. She was so gentle and patient with the girls, putting up with hundreds of kisses and hugs while dropping her muzzle to be closer to them.”
Frankel said Aspen was a “best friend” to both her daughters.
“Trying to make sense of what happened has not been easy,” Frankel said. “If some good can come from this, I hope drivers are more aware of the horse community and watch more than just the asphalt in front of their noses. If they do that, then I think the healing can begin.”
For more information or to report a concern, go to http://apps.mcdot.maricopa.gov/contact or call (602) 506-3342.