Written by: Nicole Kitchener

Kathy Bartley runs Bear Valley Rescue in Alberta.

Thumbnail for Heroes of the Horse Finalist: Kathy Bartley

In the early 2000s, while reading The Grave Maurice by Martha Grimes, Kathy first became aware of the pregnant-mare urine (PMU) industry, an element of one of the novel’s plot points. The controversial practice, where urine is collected from pregnant mares to create estrogen-replacement therapy for menopausal women, was in its heyday at the time, with the bulk of North American PMU farms located in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Kathy’s home province of Alberta.

After researching the issue, Kathy and her husband Mike, both long-time horse people, began going to auctions and feedlots hoping to rescue and rehome foals culled from PMU farms, the majority of which were headed to slaughter.

In 2004, overwhelmed by the “sheer number of horses heading to slaughter” – not just animals from PMU operations – Kathy and Mike founded Bear Valley Rescue on their 40-acre farm near Sundre in west-central Alberta.

“Generally, if we’d take in 10 or 20 horses, of those maybe only 80 per cent would be adoptable. The others were not, due to age, unsoundness, personality issues, so those would stay at the rescue,” said Kathy.

“The PMU mares specifically were often unadoptable because they’d have had little or no handling and were most likely at an age already that they were older than most people would consider starting a horse. And they didn’t like people as a rule either, meaning you couldn’t catch them or do their feet, for example.”

Every Animal Deserves Love

In the 14 years since they started, Kathy, 58, and Mike, 57, have taken in at least 1,000 horses from various circumstances. Healthy, sound animals are put up for adoption. Sick, injured or abused horses are rehabilitated and either remain at the rescue or are fostered out as companion animals.

Currently, Bear Valley is home to 151 horses: 42 forever residents, 63 adoptable horses, 46 available for fostering and another 41 living at foster homes. The rescue also welcomes other farm animals in need.

“They feel every animal deserves love and care no matter what,” said friend and volunteer Mary Ellen Lickford, one of three people who nominated Kathy and Mike for Horse Canada’s 2017 Heroes of the Horse Award. Mary Ellen met the couple about 10 years ago when she and her niece were looking for a rescue where they could volunteer. She marvels at their commitment. “Their whole day, every single day, is for the rescue.”

It’s a tremendous amount of work for Kathy and Mike, who are both retired from their respective careers as a bookkeeper and licensed mechanic. The rescue has no paid staff, relying on a dedicated group of volunteers and now, thanks to their new foreign volunteer program, two young women from Germany are on the farm full-time for a term. Despite the large number of horses in Bear Valley’s care, each animal gets individual attention nearly every day, whether it’s a quick health check or administering necessary supplements, feed or medication.

“Just Try to Be Good”

Bear Valley is costly to run. Adoption fees and tack sales help fund operations, as do online auctions, which generate $10,000 annually. The rescue also receives various grants, including funding from the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission and from a local foundation which covers the rescue’s veterinary costs. “Pets for Life Society Alberta contributes greatly to our success. Their support allows us to provide the high level of care that we do,” said Kathy.

Private and corporate donations of money and necessities help generate revenue, as does a program through which people can pay a monthly fee to sponsor individual horses. Kathy also credits many of her neighbours who donate land for pasture use.

Cheryl Bachelder also nominated Bear Valley for the Heroes of the Horse award. She calls Kathy and Mike “generous and caring” with an “unimaginable” dedication.

Their work ethic and commitment isn’t only recognized locally. In 2015, Bear Valley became the first equine group in Canada to be verified by the non-profit animal-care standards organization, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

Kathy is proud to dedicate the rescue to her father Louis Kelemen Sr. “My dad is not a horse person at all, but he’s one of the smartest people I know and the hardest worker. If it wasn’t for the advantages I had because of that, I don’t think the rescue would exist. Many people have a lot more adversity to overcome to follow their passion.”

A mystery novel might have been the catalyst for the creation of Bear Valley Rescue but it’s no secret what drives it’s everyday operation. “Compassion is so important – towards everyone and everything,” said Kathy. “We can’t do everything, but we can all do something. We make choices every day that have an effect on the world around us. Just try to be good.”

Be sure to visit Horse-Canada.com/Heroes-of-the-Horse to nominate someone for this year’s award!