Maybel is a 10-year-old mare terrified of most people. Lil, another mare, was nearly starved to death in a pen and had, says her owner, given up on life when she first found her. Then there’s 18-year-old Chevy, an arrogant Arabian always getting into trouble.
These colourful descriptions come from the woman who knows all three best, Donna Cromarty. For nearly two decades, the woman who first fell in love with horses as a toddler in northern British Columbia has been taking in horses destined for the slaughterhouse.
“When I was a teenager, I was riding thoroughbreds down a dirt track,” says Cromarty, whose girlhood infatuation with the majestic four-legged animals has only grown over the decades. “Horses know what’s in your heart. They know if you’re a good person.”
While she’s well known in these parts for fostering countless horses before finding them permanent homes, a few, like Maybel, Lil and Chevy, proved so precious that they became members of her own family.
This past Sunday night, though, Cromarty — who was widowed seven years ago when her husband Robert died of cancer — needed some rescuing of her own. “I have two horse trailers and 14 horses on my acreage,” she says. “I got a call that we had an hour to get out.”
She turned to her friend Danny, a member of the Blue Ridge Colony, which is located just outside the eastern outskirts of Waterton Lakes National Park. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of your horses for you,’” says Cromarty.
The next thing she knew, her acreage near Twin Butte, just west of her saviour Hutterite colony, was filled with horse trailers brought by men from Blue Ridge, along with members of two other colonies, Granum and Riverside.
“When I asked them if I could at least pay for their fuel, one of them said, ‘This is what we do,’” says Cromarty, wiping tears from her eyes at the memory. “What a beautiful bunch of people.”
As is so often the case in times of crisis, Cromarty is once again reminded of the extraordinary kindness of friends and strangers alike, as the Kenow wildfire continues to rage Wednesday just a half hour’s drive from where we chat in a Pincher Creek coffee shop.
By morning, the weary and worried residents wake up to at least some good news: cooler weather and the hard work of firefighting crews overnight mean that the still out-of-control wildfire is no longer threatening the Waterton townsite; rain is also in the forecast.
On a guided tour south later that day, a media convoy gets a closer look at the threat as a steady stream of helicopters flies overhead carrying large water buckets.
Driving along a secondary highway known as the Cowboy Trail, to our immediate right is the start of a mountain range as visually spectacular as that found on Hawaii’s Big Island; to our left, a countryside right out of a Cezanne or Monet painting.
Seeing the plumes of white smoke scattered across the range — perilously close to farms, ranches, opulent homes high up on hills or rustic lodges in the valleys — brings the heartbreaking effects of the disaster into stark relief. “See how one helicopter is coming in as another is going out?” Leslie Lozinski, an information officer with Alberta wildlife management, tells a group of reporters as we stand at the edge of a lookout offering panoramic views. “They have their own kind of air traffic control pattern.”
After fleeing her home on Sunday night, Cromarty says she’s glad to have a chance to feed her chickens and pick up anything she may have forgotten in her haste to get out of harm’s way.
Still, her biggest fears were allayed days ago. “I wasn’t going to let my beautiful horses burn alive, but I hadn’t thought about how I was going to get them out with little warning,” she says.
“My Hutterite friends saved my animals,” says the woman who says that today Maybel is the most life-loving animal she’s ever encountered.
“They never asked for anything from me. I just can’t believe the generosity.”