RANKIN – Sue DeBartoli grinned as she petted her chestnut-colored mustang named Spirit.
The rural Rankin woman brushed down the mare's mane as she led Spirit to the barn door. Spirit whinnied when it slid open. The horse pranced out into the sunshine of a cool November Vermilion County morning. Spirit turned her head toward her new owner.
"You're a good girl," DeBartoli said as the mustang trotted around. Then the Rankin woman wiped away a tear.
The sight of Spirit running with the wind with a full belly, a new home and a new owner was a far cry from a year ago, when the filly and her brother were left for dead on a bone-dry field in rural Bement.
Spirit and her brother were wild mustangs that had been adopted from the Federal Bureau of Land Management by David Jamison of Monticello in February 2005 and placed in a field outside Bement.
But last November, two women made frantic calls to Linda Hewerdine, the founder of a horse rescue organization in Dewey. The women told Hewerdine, who is also a certified animal investigator for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, that the two horses had no food or water and that one was dead.
When Hewerdine arrived in Bement a few hours later, she found Spirit, who was no more than 14 months old, in distress. The other mustang, who was about 2, was dead on the ground.
"The horse was very thin, and it appeared it had been left there to die," Hewerdine said. "I could tell the male horse had thrashed around in the dirt before it collapsed."
Hewerdine said she talked to a neighbor, who told her the man had left the horses there to die.
After Hewerdine took photos and reported the situation to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, state officials gave Jamison 12 hours to provide Spirit with food or water before the horse would be seized. When Hewerdine returned to the field a day later, she said conditions had not improved.
The dead horse was buried, and the mare, who would later be named Spirit, was taken to Hewerdine's ranch in Dewey, the Society of Hooved Animals' Rescue and Emergency.
Jamison was later arrested on charges of aggravated cruelty to an animal, a felony with a maximum penalty of three years in prison. In March, he was placed on probation for 24 months and ordered to pay a $750 fine, plus court costs.
In addition, Jamison was ordered to undergo counseling and is prohibited from owning any livestock for the next two years. He also has to complete 80 hours of community service at the Champaign County Humane Society.
The story of Spirit the starving mustang touched the heart of DeBartoli when she read about it in The News-Gazette.
"I've always loved horses since I was a little girl, and I owned a horse in high school," said DeBartoli, 48. "I gave up the horse when I went away to college, but I never forgot the great companionship you can have with a horse."
After reading about the horses, DeBartoli decided to volunteer at the rescue facility. Her first sight of Spirit broke her heart.
"Spirit was all skin and bones; you could tell she hadn't eaten much for a very long time," she said. "She had a bunch of burrs stuck in her mane. There was no life to her at all; she just stood there."
DeBartoli believes seeing her brother die was traumatic for the young filly.
"Mustangs don't like to be by themselves," she said.
DeBartoli said it was difficult for her to approach the horse that first week.
"After the way she had been treated, Spirit was real terrified of people at first," she said. "She cowered in the back of the corral. I don't think she knew what carrots and apples were. So I began to gingerly feed her and we slowly became friends."
She also began to feed the mustang grain in the morning and hay at night.
DeBartoli said it was a good feeling knowing she was needed and wanted by the mustang.
"Spirit and I are a lot alike," she said. "We both need each other."
So DeBartoli sold her house in Champaign and bought a farmhouse and 5 acres of land east of Rankin.
"Even though it is 40 minutes from Champaign, I don't care," she said. "It's where I can give Spirit the home she so richly deserves."
She and Jerry Born, a co-worker at Illinois American Water in Champaign, fixed up the barn and put in four horse stalls. They erected a fence around the pasture for the horse to run in and graze.
At the end of June, DeBartoli officially adopted Spirit and brought her home.
The first time she let the filly loose in the new pasture, "she strutted her stuff around and ran for like 15 minutes," DeBartoli said. "It was as if she was saying, 'I'm back, I'm alive and I'm here.' It was the happiest day of my life."
DeBartoli said that Spirit has gained about 100 pounds since she was recovered from the Bement field, and she is no longer afraid of people.
"She's become a real sweetie," she said. "She'll always have food, water and affection here. Hopefully, by next summer, I'll have a saddle and blanket on her."
DeBartoli heartily recommends adopting rescue horses.
"Horses are just like people; they need a lot of love. That's something I've been able to give to Spirit," she said as she hugged her beloved mustang. "It's a happy ending to a sad story."