Over the past two years, Brandon "Brannu" Fulton became a celebrated Atlanta street character. Branded the "Urban Cowboy," his intown horse riding garnered him love and fascination from the public, the press, and politicians.
But it also earned him a different kind of attention — resulting in multiple citations and arrests — from the likes of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, state agriculture officials, and local law enforcement. Last week, he pleaded no contest to charges of animal cruelty and permit violations in Atlanta Municipal Court. His sentence includes a $1,000 fine and six months of probation, during which time he cannot own, harbor, or ride horses inside the city limits.
About a week after the hearing, Fulton was still wearing the tan snakeskin boots, slim-cut Lees, and cowboy hat that have become his signature. But the typical spark that earned him much of the city's endearment while riding horseback and waving to passersby was replaced with a solemn vibe.
"I'm not a country dude," Fulton said, trying to come to terms with being sent out to pasture. Like a heroic character out of an old Western, he's guided by a moral compass, one that makes it hard to tell if he's on the wrong side of the law or just living in the wrong time.
Fulton's mission started out innocently. He wanted to share his passion for horses with Atlanta kids just like his grandfather did with him when he was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After he dropped out of Clark Atlanta University to DJ for rapper J-Kwon, the horse-riding bug bit Fulton again. He traded lavish tours for a rough-and-tumble horse farm in McDonough and his first horse, Spinderella. Occasional rides through intown Atlanta to drum up business for his riding academy led him to rent property off Howell Mill Road. He decided it was the perfect place for a second barn.
But the newcomer, who tied off his horse outside restaurants and gave rides to paying customers and curious kids, started to draw complaints. In April 2012, he was charged with abandoning a horse near 10th Street and Northside Drive after parking his horse trailer to get a haircut. A fence and barn he started constructing on his Westside rental property earned him citations because he lacked the required permits. Authorities eventually arrested him on animal cruelty charges after anonymous local callers claimed his horses were malnourished and abused.
"Mr. Fulton has had a history of alleged incidents with regard to the care of his horses and lots of people have seen these horses around and been concerned," says Kristin Simon, a PETA caseworker based in Norfolk, Va.
Fulton charges some fault to his own naiveté. He also believes there's a concerted effort to keep him and his horses out of sight.
"They know I'm not abusing horses," he says. For proof, he offers satisfactory veterinary inspections that classify most of his horses' bruises as common saddle sores. He also thinks people who rarely see horses in real life are more used to the image of pristine show horses, where the emphasis is put on grooming. He's more interested in showing his horses to children in underprivileged areas like the Bluff, where he gives free riding lessons in the yards of abandoned homes.
Fulton wanted to plead not guilty at his March 5 hearing, but he says his lawyer advised him to plead no contest to avoid costly legal fees. Fulton's lawyer did not return CL's calls or emails.
Though Atlanta has no laws against horse riding on city streets, Simon says PETA's stance is it's "unsafe to ride a horse on a busy street [or leave it] tied up and unattended while you go shopping and get your hair cut."
To the Urban Cowboy, that amounts to an attack on his lifestyle. "What's the threat of me being a cowboy?" he asks. "What's the threat of me wanting to live this lifestyle that is so glorified in movies?"
When asked about that long-romanticized image of cowboys tying off horses in front of the saloon, Simon says the Wild West days are over.
"It's no longer socially acceptable to leave your animal tied up unattended," she says.
After spending close to $10,000 in fines, legal fees, truck repairs, and transportation costs, Fulton concedes the law has won. "I should've done my research before putting that fence up," he says. "I kind of opened up the door for problems."
He plans to keep his horses out near Bartow County until he's off probation and has paid his fine in six months. The Westside property may no longer be an option, but he hasn't given up on his dream: an intown barn where he could eventually give riding lessons.
"I want to have a place where it's convenient and the kid living in the city can get the same thing the kid in Alpharetta or Suwanee can get," he says.
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