Twice a week, every week, Steph Tomiyama travels miles from her home to where a sorrel mare, known as Charlotte, waits expectantly – standing at the gate, waiting, walking away then back again, ears pricked, listening, waiting.
They’ve been together four years, matched up by one very canny horsewoman, Brenda Fehr, who facilitates such pairings (and just about everything else) at Dare to Dream Horse Rescue south-east of Calgary, in central Alberta.
Brenda grew up third generation within a farming family, fell in love with learning from clinicians at Red Deer’s The Mane Event, and is hand-on-heart practical. In addition to raising and training young horses rescued from the slaughter pipeline, Brenda is dedicated to fostering a love of horses in young people. Included in her army of volunteers is a pack of teenagers who undertake anything from (the ultimate!) starting horses, to mucking out the arena and serving as mentors to younger children.
When I arrive to visit Steph and Charlotte, a farrier is trimming the seven-year-old mare’s feet. Nearby, someone unlatches a gate – the ‘click’ registers with a metallic clang, the mare’s foot go down, and she moves off. No one even takes the remotest exasperated breath; instead they simply reposition her and begin anew.
Charlotte was only marginally alive when she came to Dare to Dream. At auction, not even meat kill buyers offered a single bid. Paul Mitchell, a well-known horse rescuer himself, recounted hearing the auctioneer asking for any bid before suggesting “I’ll take her out back and shoot her”. He saw red, handed over the cash and trailered the filly, along with three others, over to the Fehrs.
The filly’s vet bills went stratospheric (she still has issues with a tilted pelvis). She towed people sideways and had eyes that revealed total terror. Even handling her tail took years to overcome someone’s casual cruelty.
“Until I worked with Charlotte,” Steph explained, “I’d never appreciated how much work a horse is. Before, at summer camps, horses were saddled when you turned up. Then I came here…” she exclaimed, laughing.
“My life is pretty balanced,” the 25-year old explained, “and Charlotte’s very different from that. I’m quiet and calm, and not easy to freak out. At the drop of hat, her emotions are right there, so out of control sometimes.
“In the early days, we’d work together and she was terrifying. I was terrified sometimes, and I’d think, ‘you’re never going to get anywhere with her. And you’re never going to get anything back from her’…and that’s what made me sad.
“I definitely want to make her life better. She’s starting to trust, and I think she’s happy. I’m riding her now and I trust her. She has meltdowns, but we talk about it, then we get over it.
“She’s a project horse; there’s always going to be something I can work on.
“So far,” she added, with a deep breath and a smile, “we’re doing okay.”
Steph, who also leases a jumper at another facility, said, “When I’m at the jumping barns, I see horses that people have owned for upwards of 20, 30 years. When they call out their horses’ names across the pasture, and they come running. Here, it’s different. You see horses that are terrified, that are abused. They can’t bond with anyone. It’s a whole different end of the spectrum.”
Though most of the horses that come to Dare to Dream – many of which are young, healthy discards of overzealous breeding programs, with excellent bloodlines – are rehomed after receiving basic, foundational training, there are some who remain as life-long residents or are humanely destroyed if their challenges are too great. The deciding factor is always quality of life – one that is enjoyed without pain.
Charlotte is one such horse that Brenda has opted to keep on for the sake of her safety and consistency in handling and training. She’s pleased that Steph has persevered with the mare during her volunteer time, and proud of the progress they have achieved under her guidance and supervision. Brenda strives to develop these relationships between the volunteers and the rescue horses, and will often assign one or two horses to a volunteer for them to work with exclusively.
Running the rescue herself, with the help of the volunteers, with funding mainly from donations and the sale of horses as well as calendars and notepads at local events, Brenda can’t afford not to be a practical decision maker. Outside are a couple of generously sized pens – yearlings in one, another with two physically-compromised youngsters that may, or may not, come around. Brenda is philosophical. There has, she emphasized robustly, to “be a point of purpose. It’s not practical to ‘rescue’, then to turn them out to become pasture ornaments for the rest of their days. If something was to happen to me or Henry [her totally supportive husband], and they’re not halter broke, or they have no training, guess where they are going? We want to give these horses the best skills they can have, so they will have a chance of having a good home.”
In an adjoining pen are three more horses. One, who is white with age and thin, is obviously a classical Arabian mare – a serious elder. Whatever her bloodlines, their legacy is still apparent. There is elegance in her stride. Brenda suspects she doesn’t see very well now, but there is immense trust between the petite ranch woman and the old mare that twangs the heartstrings.
A major exception to Brenda’s rules, Deena came in on the tail-end of the truly terrible, bitterly cold 2014 Alberta winter than seemingly lasted forever. The mare’s owners, who often spent long periods abroad, had boarded her out along with three others. They returned, horrified to find the four horses starved down, subsisting on a shared ration of two meagre hay slices a day under a new ownership.
Giving them up was a tough decision, explained Brenda. They’d paid in good faith to continue their care, and were devastated to find out that hadn’t happened. Their lifestyle was still going to mean time away, so they surrendered two mares to Dare to Dream. Sadly, one elderly mare succumbed shortly after.
The surviving mare’s ears follow Brenda’s voice as she speaks. “I had no clue when I took the two old girls on. It’s not my usual at all – are you kidding me?” But still, she doesn’t regret it, noting what an asset Deena has been to the education of so many volunteers. Many well-meaning folks turn up to help with no horse experience. Handling Deena is an excellent introduction to horse care and a superb confidence booster, as she is so calm, patient and reliable.
That a starving, once near-dead mare can inspire humans despite such betrayal of life is a testament to the power of healing. “I think people go home from here peaceful, relaxed, and feel like they’ve learned something,” said Brenda. “Everybody,” she concluded, “is welcome here. You are accepted. You are loved.”