Mike and Kathy Bartley at Bear Valley Rescue. Courtesy // Colin Way

Bear Valley Rescue: A happy home for horses

By Kate Rae

The small town of Sundre is just an hour northwest of Calgary, on the Cowboy Trail that runs along the foothills of the Rockies. It’s a rugged landscape, bisected by the Red Deer River and surrounded by pristine wilderness. It’s also the long-time home of Bear Valley Rescue, a 40-acre horse sanctuary run by AMA members Mike and Kathy Bartley.

The couple, who’ve been married for 45 years, had always talked about getting into homesteads – “or something,” says Kathy. “But horse rescue just kind of crept up on us.”

Twenty years after buying their first horses at auction to save them from slaughter, the Bartleys are still at it determined to save as many horses as they can. These days, most of their current rescues are the result of owner surrenders.

“We get a lot of calls – somebody’s passed away, or somebody’s going into a home,” says Kathy. “There are a lot of aging rural people around here who are selling their farms and moving into town.”

Others surrender their horses because of the high cost of ownership, an issue that Bear Valley faces, too. On average, the Bartleys face about $5,000 a month in vet bills, and hay can get expensive. “Last year, hay was 10-and-a-half cents a pound,” Kathy notes. “It doesn’t sound like that much, but when you have 100 horses each eating 20 to 30 pounds a day…”

To help offset costs, many Bear Valley horses are available for adoption, while others are available to be sponsored, or “virtually fostered” – after all, not everyone has space for a horse at home. Still, others are fostered by Bear Valley’s nearby community of supporters.

Mike and Kathy’s days are long, and finding volunteers to help is tricky given their remote location, especially in winter. Fortunately, a succession plan is now in place. Several years ago, a young woman from France arrived to gain work experience on the farm. She ended up marrying their son, Peter. “Astrid is like my retirement,” Kathy says of her daughter-in-law. “She’s taken over a lot, which has been really, really helpful.”

These days, the Bear Valley website is filled with profiles of all the horses that have passed through its gates, a testament to the family’s tenacity and passion for their work. And no matter how bleak the circumstances were that brought the horses into their care, one thing remains the same: the Bartleys’ tireless commitment to give all of Bear Valley’s residents a peaceful, healthy, happy life on the pasture.