For Prince Edward Island’s Yogi Fell, winning Horse Canada’s inaugural Hero of the Horse Award is about way more than recognition and the $2,000 prize. It provided her a morale boost in what was a tough 2017.

“Everything fell apart this year. Even me – I broke my arm. It was one thing after another,” said Yogi, 76, who operates the non-profit Handibear Hills Horse Sanctuary in South Granville, about 40 kilometres northwest of Charlottetown. Here, for the past 30 years, Yogi has taken in and retrained scores of unwanted and abandoned horses, giving them a new life and a purpose – to educate people, mainly youth, about proper equine and stable management. Her belief was, and still is, that the more knowledge people have, the fewer horses will need rescuing. To that end, 700 children have come through her horsemanship program, the Trailblazers Horse Club, since the 1970s.

Yogi won the online contest – which recognized individuals who rescue and care for horses throughout Canada – by a huge margin. As word spread on social media and local news organizations that Yogi was one of 10 finalists for the award, supporters and fans from the Island and all over the world voted.

“What the contest has done, it has brought so many of the kids back to the sanctuary. I’ve had calls from kids who were here 30, 35 years ago. So, it really put me in touch with a lot of kids that you wonder where they are, and you wonder what’s happening in their lives. That’s been really special,” said Yogi, tears welling in her eyes.

Doing Lots with a Little

Yogi admits the Hero of the Horse money was a great part of winning the contest too, saying it will go toward paying off her hay bill. She runs the sanctuary on her pension and donations, living frugally in a small apartment above her barn, putting mostly everything into the herd, which now numbers 13 horses. With health and physical ailments dogging her in the last few years, she’s no longer taking in animals, even though the desire remains. Plus, she said, “I just can’t afford it.”

As with most equine shelters, finances are a major issue, but Yogi never figured things would be quite so desperate. Occasionally a divisive and controversial figure on the Island, Yogi, never shies from a fight.

She was one of three Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) employees who won a human-rights wrongful termination case after they were forced to retire at age 65. The school was eventually forced to rehire them and pay compensation, but Yogi, who worked in AVC’s shipping department, says the eight-year fight depleted her resources.

“After we won, people asked if it cost me anything. Well, I’m nearly bankrupt, it cost me peace of mind and it cost me horses,” she said, referring to her decision to put down several aged equines in the face of financial difficulties two years after she had to leave her job.

Abby Sawyer, 24, was one of three people who nominated Yogi for the Heroes of the Horse Award. She worked for Yogi in the summer of 2015 and said, of the many lessons learned from her mentor, one sticks out in particular. “You can do everything you need on a very, very, very tight budget,” said Abby. “She’s one of the most resilient people I know. The budgeting thing is a testament to it in a way – to do so much on so little.”

A Rescue for Horses and Humans

Yogi learned to stretch a dollar at a young age. She grew up on a farm in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island where thriftiness was simply a way of life. Here, Yogi’s love for horses began at the age of three. Her family used Belgians for work and cow ponies for chasing cattle. As an adult, she mucked out stalls at Vancouver’s Stanley Park riding academy and galloped horses at the track, eventually landing in P.E.I. in 1972 after marrying an Islander. Although the relationship ended, Yogi remained in the province. “I’m kind of a little stubborn and I was told if I left that I would be giving up,” she said.

She managed through perseverance and self-sufficiency, even building a two-bedroom house for herself and her daughter Lottie, who now lives in B.C. with her son and Yogi’s grandson, Matteo.

In 1991, Yogi began constructing a 21-stall barn, working on it gradually when money and supplies were available.

The sanctuary began rather by accident with Yogi taking in a pregnant mare. It snowballed from there. As word of mouth spread, Yogi found herself sheltering horses from a variety of circumstances, including victims of divorce, those that became too old for their owners, even track-reject Standardbreds simply dumped off at the farm. In total, Handibear Hills has homed 77 horses and ponies of many descriptions.

Tough Love

It’s also a haven for countless volunteers, program participants and those needing a respite from the real world. Here, many children have learned about stable managemoent, health and riding and driving basics. “We try to make it a nice place to be for everybody,” said Yogi.

Hero of the Horse nominator Helena Reeves and her 16-year-old autistic son Owen are a testament to that. About 10 years ago, Helena sought a place where she Owen could ride and play with horses. Unable to find a good fit anywhere, the horsewoman telephoned Handibear Hills. Yogi embraced Owen wholeheartedly despite his rambunctiousness and hyperactivity. “It was never, ‘You’ve got to be quiet in the barn.’ It was always, ‘OK, let’s go! The horses need to get used to it,’” said Helena, who, with Yogi’s help and encouragement, now runs the therapy program Horseplay P.E.I. out of the farm for individuals with autism.

“She opens her arms, her barn, to everyone. It doesn’t matter; disabilities, needs, whatever it is, you’re always welcome. So many horses she’s rescued over the years, and just as many people,” said Helena.

While self-described as “cranky” at times, Yogi expects a lot from those who cross her threshold as she tries to instill in them the resilience and discipline she has developed herself.

“They get so much from her and she takes so little. She’s tough when it comes to making sure everything is done perfectly for her horses. No wiggle room. It only means they get the best of care,” said Abby.

Helena agrees. “If she’s sees something wrong, if she sees a horse being mistreated, she’ll point it out. She’ll make enemies, sure she will. But she’s not scared of speaking out. She’s always one to educate, and it’s always the horses first.”

What does the future hold for Yogi? Right now, her main concern is getting her barn cleaner fixed. The conveyor that runs manure from the barn to a pile outside is an essential for Yogi, who often finds herself storm-stayed for days alone during P.E.I. winters and is physically unable to haul the waste outside. (A young Island woman recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the repair. Check it out at Yogi’s long-term dream is to eventually grow the autism program and even take in more horses for that purpose. But, today, Yogi, her friends and supporters are savouring the excitement and honour of becoming the very first Horse Canada Hero of the Horse. As Trailblazer LaShya McQuaid, 16, said, “It’s a miracle. It’s heaven sent. Yogi deserved it.”