The Rescue of Belle and Sundance
|Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Certified Horse Trainer and Coach
By Birgit Stutz
Dunster, B.C. Canada
It was 10 days before Christmas 2008. A fierce blizzard was raging through the Robson Valley when I received the news of two abandoned, starving horses high up in the Rocky Mountains. Two local snowmobilers had discovered them while searching for abandoned snowmobiles. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two horses high up in the alpine in the middle of winter?
The two skinny animals, a three-year-old mare named Belle and a 14-year-old gelding named Sundance (we found out their names and ages later), were trapped in six feet of snow in the alpine just below Mount Renshaw, a very rugged, remote area. The horses had trampled down the snow an area the size of a large dining table and were stuck in that icy prison. They were covered with ice and snow and had eaten each other’s tails off as there was nothing else to eat. Belle was also missing large patches of hair due to frostbite from lying down. It was minus 15 degrees Celsius. Without help, the horses would soon die.
The following day, four local snowmobilers headed back up to the two horses with hay and blankets. They also melted snow so the horses could drink some water. One look into the horses’ eyes and the snowmobilers knew that they had to come up with a plan to save the two animals. Belle and Sundance hadn’t given up hope yet, so the would-be rescuers wouldn’t give up hope yet either.
Word of the two horses’ desperate situation quickly spread throughout the valley. Everyone that saw the horses agreed that they still had a will to live and should be rescued. But how? Many different ideas were thrown around, from packing a trail down by stomping the snow with our feet, to tying the horses onto big pieces of plywood and pulling them out with snowmobiles, to fashioning snowshoes for the horses, to bringing in heavy equipment to clear a path. Even flying them out with a helicopter was looked at as an option, however, due to the horses’ weak state, a veterinarian and SPCA officers who went up the mountain to check on the horses advised against that.
The only option left was to shovel, by hand, a narrow trench, six feet deep and three feet wide, along the steep mountainside to a groomed snowmobile trail that was one kilometre from where the horses were trapped. From there, Belle and Sundance would have to be walked almost 30 kilometres to the bottom of the mountain.
It seemed like an impossible task. Temperatures had dropped to minus 30 degrees Celsius. There weren’t many daylight hours. And it was shortly before Christmas, so everybody was busy.
However, many people felt that rescuing the two horses was more important than anything else and they dropped whatever they were doing to help dig a trench. Every day, for eight days, more and more helpers showed up on snowmobiles with shovels and hay to help rescue the two horses. Belle and Sundance greeted the volunteers with a nicker every morning.
After more than a week of shovelling, in temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius, the volunteers succeeded. The path was finally cleared! After the blankets were taken off the horses so they wouldn’t get hung up on their journey down the trench, Belle and Sundance were led through the narrow passageway without incident. At the other end of the “tunnel of freedom”, as the trench came to be known, over 20 volunteers cheered as Belle and Sundance emerged.
But now the horses still had to walk for almost 30 kilometres down the logging road. Would they be strong enough? It was a cold and dark night, no moon was shining, and five volunteers started the long trek with the horses down the mountain, two of them leading the two horses, the others riding their snowmachines, taking turns along the way. I walked for more than 20 kilometres that night. I had never driven a snowmobile before, but after a crash course, one of the volunteers let me drive his machine while he took Belle’s lead rope from me. It was freezing cold though on the snowmachine, so after less than an hour, I switched places with him again. It took seven hours until our tired group finally reached the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain. There, a local farmer waited with his stock trailer to pick the two horses up and take them to his warm barn, filled with fresh straw and hay. It was the night before Christmas Eve. We all agreed, there couldn’t have been a better Christmas present.
A week later, the two horses were taken to a foster farm in Prince George to further recuperate, and soon after both horses were adopted into new, loving homes. The SPCA had decided that the owner of the two horses, a lawyer from Edmonton, Alta., wouldn’t get Belle and Sundance back, even though he said he wanted his animals back.
The horses’ owner, Frank Mackay, had been using Belle and Sundance as pack horses to deliver supplies to a hiker a few months earlier. However, the horses had trouble crossing the tough terrain, full of bog and deadfall, and refused to follow their owner. So Mackay took their packs off and decided to leave Belle and Sundance behind. He figured the two horses would eventually come down the mountain on their own and rode out on his saddle horse. This, however, as we all know now, didn’t happen. Mackay went back twice to look for the animals, but the first time he couldn’t find them because the weather was bad, and the second time he did find them, but thought that they were “too far gone” and decided to “let Mother Nature take its course.”
The volunteers didn’t know any of this when they started shovelling, and to them it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. “Humans put the horses up there (on the mountain), humans had to get them off of it,” is how my husband Marc put it.
Today, Bella, as her new owner affectionately calls her, lives on a ranch south of Prince George with several other horses, and Sunny, short for Sundance, calls a ranch near Kamloops home.
| Click on image to see Photo Gallery of the Rescue of Sundance and Belle