Four years ago, Kris Latham rescued three slaughter-bound Appaloosa mares from auction and brought them to her newly purchased 70-acre property, Cheekye Ranch, just outside Squamish, British Columbia.

Allie and her daughter Gypsie were believed to be only five and three years old. Then there was 20-year-old Shi, who, although she wasn’t necessarily related, Kris said, “We called her Grandma. They were just absolutely amazing, beautiful animals.”

After a few months in their new home, the two youngest kept gaining weight. A veterinarian confirmed they were pregnant. The following spring, Allie gave birth to a healthy baby. Kris named him Snapper. Sadly, about a week later, Gypsie and her foal both died during the birthing process. “That just killed me. It was really, really hard,” recalled Kris. “Having such a young horse being pregnant, it really hit home for me about the random breeding that goes on.”

It turns out Grandma Shi was pregnant as well, but didn’t show. Her baby was born prematurely. Again, both died. The sorrow Kris felt over these losses was the impetus for her to become “incredibly involved” in rescuing horses, especially those intended for slaughter. The idea of what she wanted really came clear while she was thinking about a particular horse in a kill pen, wishing he could enjoy a second chance at life. Kris called it an “ah-ha moment” – Second Chance Cheekye Ranch (SCCR) was about to take off.

Since officially launching the not-for-profit in 2016, more than 70 horses, five donkeys and a mini mule have come through SCCR’s gates. Of those, 40 have been rehomed, including Snapper, who was adopted earlier this year. Eight equines are permanent residents. And then there’s Allie, who is now Kris’s own.

“The overbreeding needs to stop,” said Kris, 50. “The carelessness of exploiting an animal and then just tossing it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s so incredibly heartbreaking to see those animals going through auction when you know they have 15 years of life in them and could be giving somebody such an amazing experience. It drives me every day to wake up to get out there to be with those animals and make sure they’re getting the best possible home ever.”

An Embodiment of True Horsemanship

For her dedication and efforts, Kris’s supporters recently voted her Horse Canada’s 2018 Hero of the Horse Award winner. SCCR volunteer Diana Lussier nominated Kris and spearheaded the voting campaign.

“Since working at the SCCR, I have watched how much work, physically, financially and emotionally, Kris puts into rescuing and caring for these horses,” Diana said. “It’s such a honour to watch the calm and instinctive way she works with them. She embodies what true horsemanship is about.”

Meanwhile, a grateful and emotional Kris told Horse Canada, “I am so incredibly honoured to have the support network behind me that actually voted for me every day. It’s amazing, it really is. This started out as my passion. This is something I wanted to do and as it evolved, the amount of people who came and wanted to help and learn more was just so incredibly inspiring. And it’s turned into a little community and it’s growing.”

With Squamish ever expanding, the equine industry has dwindled, so SCCR has become a haven for those wanting to be involved with horses. Kris’s main focus is educating people, especially children, on the lifetime of dedication and care horses require and about what can happen to unwanted animals. “For me, it’s a commitment until that animal is no longer alive and that’s what I’m trying to instill.”

A crew of 15 volunteers not only pitch in to help with the farm chores, but are involved in rehabilitating the animals. “The whole facility wouldn’t be running without the volunteers to tell you the truth,” said Kris.

Rewarding Transformation

Most horses (and donkeys too!) arriving at SCCR have never been handled. About half are bought at auction, while others are saved from kill pens or surrendered. SCCR is also affiliated with Pemberton-area First Nations communities where free-roaming horses cause property damage and create a danger on public highways. SCCR has taken in nearly 30 such horses that otherwise might have been captured and shipped to slaughter or injured or killed on the roads.

After a settling in period, Kris assesses each animal’s physical and mental condition, and begins the often slow process of bringing them back to health and developing trust – a process that can take days or months depending on the horse. Eventually, when the animals are ready for training she pairs them up with a volunteer.

“I work with them in regard to our program and how we like to see the horses start. And then they’re pretty much their horse to look after,” said Kris. “It’s so rewarding for me to see the transformation and the learning in both the people and the horses.”

Diana, for example, is currently working with a half-Arabian named Caden. “He’s still a work in progress, but gaining his trust and seeing him keen to learn and trust me has been a powerful experience,” she said.

The rigorous adoption process involves an application, reference checks and approval of a five-person board of directors. If the new home doesn’t pan out, the horse is returned to SCCR.

With numbers currently at 40, SCCR’s biggest expense is hay – to the tune of about $4,500 a month, estimates Kris. The organization receives funds through bottle drives and online campaigns and its own lesson and horsemanship programs, but the main income generator is July’s Hooves & Hearts fundraiser. Held at the ranch (which, in addition to housing the rescue, is also an event space for hire), this year’s affair brought in $11,000 through a silent auction, donations, mechanical bull rides, a beer garden and entertainment. “It brings the community together and it recognizes what we do here. Everybody who comes to the property is in awe and I love being able to showcase it. Next year is going to be bigger and better,” said Kris.

Kris received a trophy and $2,000 for winning the Heroes of the Horse Award. While some will go toward the hay bill, true to her giving nature, Kris said she is donating a portion to two other rescue organizations: True Faces of Horse Slaughter and B.C. Horse Angels.

The First Rescue

It truly seems rescuing horses is Kris’s destiny. She saved her first horse from slaughter at age 12 – a story that could be lifted from the pages of a young-adult horsey novel. At the time, her family lived on a farm in Cormack, Newfoundland. Their neighbour, Herbie, hitched his horse Queenie up to a rickety old buggy and ran up and down the road every day. Kris, a horse lover from a very early age, befriended Herbie, asked if she could take care of the mare when he wasn’t using her. He agreed and Kris proceeded to fall in love with her foster horse.

“We had Queenie for about nine months at the farm. Never once did I see Herbie. Then one day, I was out grooming and a trailer pulls up. A big burly guy gets out and says, ‘She’s just been sold to me. I’m buying her as a broodmare.’”

Although unaware what the horse’s fate was certainly to be, Kris knew something wasn’t right, “because Queenie was already 17 and you don’t use a 17-year-old for a broodmare,” she said. “But I couldn’t stop him. I was devastated.”

About 15 minutes later, her mom came home from work. “I told her, ‘They took Queenie. I could have bought her for $150, but I didn’t have any money.’ My mom lost it. We got in the car and ripped after the trailer.”

They eventually caught up to the trailer and flagged the man down. Her mom wrote a $150 cheque, they unloaded Queenie and Kris and her new horse walked the 12 kilometres or so home. “Never in one day have I been so incredibly horrified and sad and then, in less than two hours, feeling this absolute euphoria of owning my own horse.”

When her family later moved to Alberta, Queenie went to a good home in Newfoundland, dying at the age of 23 of colic. Kris eventually settled in Squamish in her 20s, establishing a successful landscape design company. She didn’t have another equine of her own until about 15 years ago when, one cold, drizzly November day she gathered up a mother-daughter pair of woebegone donkeys, who had been abandoned after major flooding in the area. Momma San and Cheeks, joined Trooper, a Standardbred/Quarter Horse Kris had adopted after a friend fell on hard times. It was a herd of three for many years.

In 2014, when Kris moved her crew to Cheekye Ranch, she yearned to help more animals. She contacted long-time anti-slaughter advocate and rescuer Belinda Lyall and slowly began taking in a few horses here and there.

The arrival that year of Allie, Gypsie and Shi pushed Kris into high gear. Since then she has become a fixture in the B.C. horse rescue and adoption community, a group for which she has high praise. The Heroes of the Horse Award helps “really showcase what rescues do,” said an appreciative Kris. “There are so many incredible rescues out there doing the exact thing, if not more than what we’re doing at SCCR. Everybody deserves this award. There’s no doubt about it.”