Bear Valley Rescue has been saving horses from slaughter for almost 12 years.
In mid-December, the horse rescue had taken in 10 more horses bringing the total to 160 on site at the Sundre-area sanctuary.
“I’m expecting in January, February when winter actually does hit and people have to start feeding hay, things will get worse,” said Mike Bartley, who operates the rescue with his wife Kathy.
The couple, and about 20 dedicated volunteers, currently tend to the horses, along with nine pigs, two llamas, six cows, three goats, a bunch of poultry, and rabbits.
Another 45 horses, two donkeys and two mini-mules are in foster care off the property.
To stand before a herd of 110 unbridled horses, gathered peacefully for their morning feed near the fence of their 20-acre paddock, is breathtaking.
Amid softly falling snow, the magnificent equines in the wide open wooded area makes for a perfect western winter scene.
When they spot Kathy, a few of the horses come to say hi at the fence line and wait for feed pellets she often keeps in her pocket to hand out as treats.
She said unfortunately many people think horses should be put to work rather than enjoying a carefree life as part of a herd.
“We don’t expect that necessarily,” Kathy said.
“When they come here, we just let them be horses. That’s the first thing that we do. Some of them come from abusive situations. That’s the best recovery for them — just leave them alone. Put them in with all the other horses and they find a place in the herd. They feel safe. Some are traumatized to the point you can’t even touch them. After a while, they settle down,” said Mike after maneuvering three bales of hay into the paddock with a skid steer.
In the summer, the herd is divided up and live on about 10 pastures in the area.
The herd includes many quarter horses, which are the most common breed in Alberta, along with thoroughbreds, and a few draft horses.
Mike’s and Kathy’s five horses are among the leaders in the herd.
“Our guys are probably the anchor and they’re so laid back that they provide good leadership,” Mike said.
“They have their own little groups of herds. They hang out together. They snooze together. They do buddy scratches, chew on each others withers,” Kathy said.
She said when new horses are added to the herd, everyone calms down quickly. Bad habits horses develop when they have spent a lot of time in stalls, like bobbing back and forth or chewing fences, tend to go away when they are in the herd environment.
“If you go down there and watch them for awhile, you see the dynamics. And it’s a big enough area to get away from each other if they have to,” Mike said.
Horses with special needs, older horses, stallions not yet gelded, or mares with a foal, are kept in smaller corrals on another area of the property.
That includes Pet, their oldest horse who has spent eight of her 39 years at the rescue. Pet recently struck up a friendship with a orphan foal named Filly.
“They’re inseparable,” Mike said.
“(Pet) has always been very maternal. Whenever we’ve had other babies, if she sees them she gets all excited,” Kathy said.
For now they are declining offers to adopt Filly because it would just crush Pet.
Over the years, the rescue has re-homed well over 600 horses.
Currently about half their horses are suitable for adoption. Their older, temperamental, or unsound horses will live out their lives at the rescue.
“Our goal is to try and make sure they’re safe for life,” Mike said.
This year, representatives with Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries did an extensive onsite inspection of Bear Valley Rescue.
Based in Washington, D.C., GFAS is an international accrediting body for sanctuaries, rescue centres and rehabilitation centres.
Bear Valley received GFAS verification for meeting the federation’s standard of excellence by addressing humane and responsible care of animals and guidelines defining an ethical and legal sanctuary.
“We’re the first equine group that has received this verification in Canada,” Kathy said.
She found out about GFAS a few years ago while looking for standards for animal shelters. Until recently, no one was available to inspect Canadian facilities behalf of GFAS.
In years past, the couple attended auctions to save foals and mares from slaughter that were coming out of the pregnancy mares urine (PMU) industry. PMU is used to produce estrogen and hormone-replacement drugs.
The couple said that while the PMU industry may be on the decline, people are still over breeding horses and end up selling them for horse meat for very little profit, if any.
Mike said he can’t understand breeding horses when there’s no market.
“(Horses) are big animals. They’re not like a cat or a dog. You’re really restricted. There’s only so many people who are going to get a horse for riding or something,” he said.
“Alberta is so horse orientated. That’s what’s so sad about the whole horse slaughter,” Kathy said.
Kathy and Mike still take part in rescue efforts, but instead of going out looking for horses to save, many people are now calling Bear Valley to surrender their horses.
“Every morning you turn the computer on and it’s like, ‘what’s going to be there today’. Mostly we get people asking for help. We’re getting thoroughbreds or ex-chuckwagon horses. That seems to be the new thing,” Mike said.
Kathy said some people do love their horses and ensure they have a home for life. Others don’t.
The couple said they’ve had some success helping people find new homes for their horses so space at Bear Valley Rescue can be used for horses in the most desperate situations. The rescue is not for people who have just outgrown their horse and want to get another one.
Bear Valley will allow horses that were adopted from the rescue to return for any reason for the horses’ protection.
“We don’t restrict people from selling the horse again, but we always prefer they come back to us. With the price of hay, we’ve had a lot come back over the last year,” Kathy said.
Bear Valley Rescue’s annual Christmas fundraiser is underway. Last year, they raised $12,000 and hope to beat that amount.
For more information about Bear Valley Rescue and the fundraiser go to www.bearvalley.org.