CHAMPAIGN — Nancy Strunk of Champaign remembers purchasing her favorite horse more than 20 years ago.
"We have four kids, and I wanted to get them a pony," Strunk said. "Her name is Santee Ms. Hancock, a Pony of the Americas mare. You really have to be a horse owner to experience the special bond a person has with their horse."
Strunk's children are now grown, and these days Santee Ms. Hancock is being ridden by Strunk's grandchildren, Lindsey Scherer, 7, and Nicholas Scherer, 4.
But Strunk remains heavily involved with the world of horses as the chairwoman of the Champaign County Farm Bureau's equine committee.
The equine committee is a community of horse enthusiasts and people employed in horse-related careers who work to promote the equine agriculture industry, who partner with horse owners to promote good health practices and living conditions for their animals and lobby for laws that promote the best interests of the animals and their owners.
Struck said more than 450 people in the area receive publications and other mailings from the equine committee, including horse owners, breeders, trainers and veterinarians.
A survey conducted in 2004 showed that people involved with equine committee activities owned more than 500 horses in Champaign County.
Deb Heinz of rural Sadorus said she has loved horses since she got her first quarter horse at the age of 12.
"I remember cleaning out the stall, and it was really hard work, but I loved that horse," Heinz said.
Heinz's daughter, Allison Heinz, 20, began taking riding lessons when she was 9 years old and today runs a horse-boarding business.
When Heinz isn't helping out her daughter, she serves as co-chairwoman of the equine committee.
"We work hard to promote equine activities throughout Champaign County," she said.
Strunk said the committee holds various activities throughout the year for horse enthusiasts. Among the more popular events is an equine garage sale of consignment horse-related items, held at the Champaign County Farm Bureau offices, and the Equine Adventure, an event where horse lovers listen to talks about horse nutrition, keeping their animals healthy, showing horses and other issues.
Strunk said the best part of serving on the equine committee is the ability to network with other horse owners.
"It gives us the opportunity to meet with horse owners of all the different breeds," she said.
According to Strunk, many local horse owners are working to have laws enacted to permit the humane slaughter of horses.
"If you have an old, broken-down horse that can't be ridden, horse owners don't know what to do with them," Strunk said. "The owners used to take them to a market to produce meat, and now you have to take them to Mexico."
Strunk said some horse owners have resorted to setting their horses loose in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois and other places.
"The committee is concerned about the fact that equine slaughter has been shut down by the government," Strunk said. "We experience calls from horse owners who have horses that they can no long keep, horses who are sick and need to be put down. These owners have nowhere to bury the horse and therefore are desperate."
Heinz advises prospective new horse owners to learn as much as they can about their new hobby.
"Make sure you educate yourself on what it takes to take care of a horse," Heinz said. "Raising horses is an expensive hobby. You have to have a place to board your horse, and the price of hay went up last year because of the drought."
Strunk estimates that feed for a typical horse costs between $2 and $2.50 a day, plus $100 a year for veterinarian services and $600 for a farrier (a specialist in equine foot care).
"Then you must add in the cost of boarding if the owner does not have a place to house the horse," Strunk said.
Strunk invites people interested in the equine committee and its activities to call the Farm Bureau at 352-5235.