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Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

OTI - The call comes in the morning, after a cold, wet night, and David Heidt asks a few questions, writes down an address and climbs into his big, white, truck-turned-horse-hearse.

He drives out to a farm, where he finds a horse lying on the ground, dead. Heidt picks up the horse with his crane and puts it in a red steel box on the back of the truck, and takes it back to his farm, where he buries it in a pasture at the end of a valley.

Heidt is an equine undertaker, operating the only horse cemetery in Oregon and one of just a handful nationwide.

Heidt, 42, said he never expected to find himself doing this work, which can be unpleasant and heart-wrenching. But he's good at it, and he enjoys providing a service to people in their time of need.

"When I first started doing it, I thought the hardest part would be the gross issue," he said. "It turns out a horse is a horse. The hardest part is the emotional part. Sometimes you cry - you can't help it."

Heidt and his wife, Marta, both Elmira High School graduates, run Omega Farms, a 257-acre spread, most of it in timber, tucked into a valley surrounded by steep hills on the eastern edge of the Coast Range.

There are no grave markers in this bucolic setting at the end of the road, but it is a final resting place for a growing roster of horses, along with a handful of llamas, deer - even a big old pet pig. Sometimes visitors come out to lay flowers.

For two years, Heidt has offered his service, traveling out to farms and veterinary clinics. Back home, he puts the animals in the ground in neat rows marked by vertical stands of white irrigation pipe, and he keeps a map showing where each horse is interred.

He's providing a service for horse owners who can't or won't bury their horses on their own land, and would rather not send them to the rendering factory in Redmond, or to Wildlife Safari in Winston, which takes aging livestock as feed for its big cats.

He makes money off the enterprise, he said, but not a lot - he charges $225 for horses, less for smaller animals - and he said that's not why he's doing it.

"We offer it as a service, as an alternative," he said. "We're Christians; we run it as we would want to be treated."

Heidt gets most of his business from referrals by equine veterinarians, who say they're glad he took on the task.

"I think it's a really good idea," Eugene veterinarian Hank Anderson said. "That's a big job."

"It's a very necessary service," said Rich Mosier, a partner in Del Oeste Equine Hospital in Eugene.

After the old Eugene Chemical Works closed down, horse owners scrambled when it came time to dispose of a horse, Mosier said. They'd either have to find a place to bury it, on their own land or a neighbor's, or arrange for an out-of-town trucking firm to transport it to a Redmond rendering plant.

Then Heidt came along with an option that many horse owners find more appealing.

"It's got a personal touch to it," Mosier said. "To recycle them in a rendering plant is not quite as personal."

About three dozen operators offer similar horse burial services across the country, said Stephen Drown, executive director of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories.

"I'm all for it," said Drown, who has a horse farm in upstate New York. "I've never sent a horse to rendering and I never will. You want your horse who's been your pet to go for dog food? I don't. It should have a dignified burial or cremation of some kind."

The Heidts got the idea to provide mortuary service for horses about two years ago when a horse Marta had owned for 27 years had to be euthanized. They buried it on their farm. Afterward, the Heidts asked Anderson, their vet, what other people do when their horses die.

"He said it's a real problem," Heidt said. "He said, 'You guys ought to do this.' '

Heidt dismissed the idea at first, but then he and his wife started thinking more about it, and the logistics involved. Heidt formerly worked as a ranch hand and construction electrician, and was co-owner of Scientific Developments Inc., a Eugene company that turns old tires into traffic-cone bases. He's also a farmer with the practical skills required to keep his farm running.

"I stayed awake at night a lot," he said, thinking about how to pick up a 1,000-pound animal, how to transport it, how to bury it. "There's no school to teach you this stuff."

He bought a run-down 1976 International Loadstar 1700 truck and spent about $15,000 fixing it up. It's equipped with a winch, knuckleboom crane and a big metal box, and he carries an ATV on the back with a towing sled in case the horse is in a location where he can't get his truck.

Then there were the regulatory hurdles: He needed to get the OK from Lane County planners in the form of a special-use permit, which took about six months, and he needed a rendering license from the state Department of Agriculture just to transport horses in his truck.

Then it came time to go out and do a job he'd never done before. He wasn't sure what to expect. But he knew that he'd be dealing with people mourning the loss of a beloved animal. That's why, he said, he makes a point of never being in a hurry when he's out on a job.

"They're your kid that never leaves," he said. "It's a really strong bond. Sometimes the people are crying and really distraught. At the same time, they're genuinely thankful."

One recent morning, he went out to pick up Diablo, a 34-year-old black horse that belonged to 12-year-old Rene Filley, on Fir Butte Road east of Fern Ridge Lake. Filley had gone to school by the time Heidt arrived, but her parents, Lori and Bill Filley, were there.

"She had a good long life," Lori Filley said. "She finally just gave out. This type of thing is a natural event."

Rene had owned the horse for about three years, and she had other horses as well, Filley said.

Heidt pulled his truck into the corral where Diablo lay. He chatted briefly with Filley, and squatted down to take a closer look at the horse.

"She looks nice," he said quietly to Filley, "well-cared for."

Filley asked him to save some tail hair, and Heidt asked her if her daughter would like a braided piece of mane hair as well. He kneeled down, and spent a few minutes braiding a length of hair, secured it with rubber bands, and cut it off with his Leatherman.

"My wife showed me how to braid," he said.

Heidt then got to work, wrapping thick canvas straps around the horse's legs, then securing the straps to the hook of his crane. He raised the horse, swung it over the back of the truck, and carefully lowered it into the red steel box on back.

Filley wrote Heidt a check, and Heidt gave her a copy of a poem his wife found on the Internet called "Don't Cry for the Horses," then headed for home.

He said later that the pickup was about as clean and painless as they come. Sometimes he has to pick up animals that have been autopsied. Others have been left out too long and begun to smell. Some have fallen in awkward, hard-to-get-to spots in a stable.

"There are times when it can be pretty gross," he said.

Harder still is when the owners are crying and distraught. His reward is the words and cards of thanks.

"I've got friends all over I don't even know," he said.

Back at the farm, Heidt prepared to finish the job. When he buries a horse, he digs a second hole and uses the top soil to help fill in the first hole. He climbed in his excavator and dug out a few more scoops of earth from the pre-dug hole until it was about 8 feet deep, 3 feet wide and 7 feet long.

Diablo's body was positioned with his feet pointing toward the hole. Using the bucket of the excavator, Heidt gently pushed the horse toward the hole, and with a final nudge, pushed it in feet first.

Heidt jumped out of the cab and sprinkled two coffee cans full of hydrated lime, a white powder, on top of the horse to hasten its decomposition. Then he used his excavator to fill the hole up, at the same time digging a new hole where the next horse will come to rest. With the smell of freshly turned soil in the air, Heidt looked down the pasture and thought about the funny turn his life took that led him to this vocation.

"I've sunk to picking up dead horses," he said, smiling. "Life is pretty weird."


Karen Barrong holds a piece of braided mane and a photo of her beloved horse Sugar, who died last November and was buried at Omega Farms. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard David Heidt stands next to the grave (at center) of a horse named Diablo that he has just buried on his farm near Noti. The animals are buried in rows marked by poles of white irrigation pipe. Heidt fills in the grave of a horse with dirt from a second hole that he digs beside the grave. The second hole later becomes the grave for the next burial. One of David Heidt's horses comes up for a nuzzle as he and 14-year-old daughter Emily tend to their animals on Omega Farms. Marta Heidt catches a ride on the running boards as David Heidt drives back to the house from the horse cemetery on their 257-acre farm. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard
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Title Annotation:Animals; A Noti farmer operates one of the few horse cemeteries in the country
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 19, 2006
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