Shanna Brus of rural Homer never forgot her first love. When she chanced to find him again eight years after parting company with Squirt, she knew they would never part ways again. And she took him home with her.
Squirt is the pony Brus received from her parents on her fourth birthday. That was Valentine's Day 1984. Squirt was then twice her age at 8 years old.
"My parents had bought him at auction a couple days before, and we got to go that day to pick him up and trailer him home," Brus said. "I remember I got this big box full of tack: halters, bridle, saddle, everything you could need for a new pony."
The family lived in northern Illinois at the time, where Brus' mother, Sandy Owen, now of Steward, Neb., worked as a horse trainer.
"I learned to ride on this pony," Brus said. "I fell in love with him as a kid. I rode him every single day. My mom would ride four to six horses a day, and to keep me busy, I rode Squirt. We spent hours together every day."
By the time Brus was 12, she was too big to ride Squirt any more — in fact, her mother forbade it. But the bond she shared with Squirt had everything to do with riding, and she really couldn't help herself.
"I would still sneak out to ride him," Brus said. "That's why my mom ended up selling him: I just wouldn't stay off him. I was reckless on him. I used to jump him over the breeding posts — that was higher than my head when I was on him. But he could do it — he could jump really high. My father used to always say that he was my partner in crime."
Squirt was sold to another family with small children. The saddle and all the rest of the tack, plus the cart Squirt had been trained to drive, all went with him.
The years went on, and there were other horses to love — show horses. Brus took more than her share of ribbons, competing at the national level. Her passion for horses led her to become an equestrian veterinarian. In the meantime, she got married and had her first child, a son.
In June 2000, Brus and her mother were hauling horses down to Forth Worth, Texas, for the American Paint Horse Association World Championship. Months ahead of time, arrangements were made to stop halfway through the drive to overnight at a hotel. They would board the horses at a stable they'd found in the association's member directory. The stable was selected almost randomly, from a long list.
When they arrived, Brus spied a pony in the back pasture that looked so much like her old pony, Squirt, that she commented on it to the stable owner.
"Could be," she was told. "His name is Squirt."
She had to find out. Brus and her mother walked with the barn owner across the acre-sized pasture to get to Squirt.
"It was getting dark, and the pony was far enough away that you couldn't be sure — you couldn't really make out its colors," Brus said. "But you could see the markings were the same.
"When I went out in the pasture, he nickered and came right up to me. Maybe it was because it was dinnertime — that's what the barn owner said. But my mom swears he recognized me: He came to me, not the barn owner. I like to think he knew who I was."
Squirt was for sale, and Brus purchased him on the spot. Since they planned to travel a different route home, Squirt traveled to the big show with them the next day.
Brus learned Squirt had had three owners over the eight years they were apart, all families with small children who rode him. When the barn owner produced Squirt's saddle and tack, she was thrilled.
"Squirt was sold in 1992 with my saddle, saddle pad, bridle, cart and harness for about $2,500. I ended up buying him back for $350 with my original saddle, saddle pad and bridle — all but the cart and harness. And that's what my kids use to ride him."
Squirt is fed a special softened diet now since he no longer has molars. But at 37 years of age, he's still going strong. Four of Brus' children all first learned to ride on Squirt at the age of 2. The baby, now 18 months, gets assisted rides and will learn to ride Squirt on her own come summertime.
"Squirt will live the rest of his life as a member of our family," Brus said. "The oldest pony on record lived to be 56 years old. So Squirt could have another 20 years. That would be amazing if my grandkids got to touch him."
Brus recently started an equestrian 4-H Spin club to give local children a chance to learn about and work with horses. She said many of the 20 or so children who signed up will get their first horse experiences with Squirt or with her most prized show horse: JPF Hey You, purchased for her when she was 13 years old. (He will likewise live out the rest of his life with the Brus family.)
Brus said anyone interested in joining the club should contact Melissa Bender at the Champaign County office of the University of Illinois Extension before the next meeting Thursday, at which time registration will close.
"The interactions between horses and children are just amazing to me," Brus said. "When children learn they can control an animal 10 to 20 times larger than they are, they are no longer weak, or small, or awkward — they are courageous and free.
"Just being able to ride a horse is enough to give some children the confidence to tackle other difficult tasks in their lives and at school."
This column is dedicated to your pets in The News-Gazette circulation area. If you have a special pet story you'd like to share, please send an email to Siv Schwink at email@example.com. Schwink is a freelance writer and interpretive naturalist. She lives in the country with her three kids, a dog, three rabbits, a budgie and two ferrets.