ELBURN – Standing in her space, behind a wooden sign identifying her as “Autumn,” the pony calmly munched on her food Friday at a stable at Casey’s Safe Haven, a horse rescue facility located on Brundige Road near Elburn.
A few feet away stood a woman who looked lovingly at the pony. The woman, Jacqueline Helton-Briggs, had driven in from Kentucky. She stood next to Sue Balla, the president of Casey’s. It was the first time they had met, but they had been talking for a month.
But Helton-Briggs and the pony? They were old friends. After a 28-year quest to find her “best friend” from her childhood, she said she was convinced that she had found her pony at long last. Now that she was able to see her again, she said she knew for sure. And when she heads back home, she said the pony will have the name she gave her as a teenager, Knickers. And she’ll be taking her home at long last.
Balla said the entire scenario was a shocker, something she calls “a Christmas miracle.”
“We truly thought that she would die of old age here,” Balla said of Autumn. “Who buys a 38-year-old pony?”
It had been 28 years since Helton-Briggs, then a college student, learned that her pony had been sold. She said it was a decision made by her father, who had been caring for the pony while she was away at school. Heartbroken, she said she later tracked the pony down, only to learn that her next owner had died, and the ponies in his care had been sold, likely to farms north of Kentucky. She said she never gave up hope of finding her pony.
Last month, she said she decided to check out a website called Petfinder.com, inspired by a feeling she had. On page 68 of the horses, she said, she saw a sight that made her stop.
“I knew it was her,” Helton-Briggs said. She added that, though it was 4 a.m., she almost wanted to call right away to talk to Balla. She said she instead waited for a reasonable hour and made the call.
Balla said she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Balla said it’s not unusual for her to get calls about the ponies housed at Casey’s, and she said every one of them will be available to view at Petfinder.com. But she never had heard of such a story – a decades-long search for an old friend, and someone wanting to adopt a pony with significant special needs.
Balla said it took a tremendous amount of work to rehabilitate Autumn over two years. She said the pony had been undernourished when she arrived at Casey’s. She had cataracts in both eyes, a bad cut on her right cheek and teeth that badly needed to be addressed. The pony had issues with diarrhea, and it took consultation with four veterinarians before a solution – switching her food to sweet potatoes – was found. Balla joked that she called Autumn her “million-dollar horse.”
The women talked for a while, and Balla said she quizzed the Kentucky resident for a long time. Helton-Briggs knew everything about the pony, she said, and she became convinced that it was a true story. Still, she said she wanted to make sure. She said there was no way those at Casey’s would put so much time and effort into a pony and then let it walk into a bad situation.
“If it ain’t warm and fuzzy, it ain’t happening,” Balla said.
She told Helton-Briggs that she would also have to take Nemo, believed to be Autumn’s offspring.
“She said, ‘I wouldn’t want to separate family,’ ” Balla said.
Finally, they arranged to have Helton-Briggs come up and meet Autumn, who again will be known as Knickers, for the trip to Kentucky. Helton-Briggs is spending the weekend at Casey’s, learning the nuances of caring for the ponies, before heading back down to Kentucky.
It might be impossible to know for certain that Autumn is indeed the same pony Helton-Briggs had as a child. Balla said the pony came to Casey’s after having been employed at a farm that provides pony rides. That matches the profile of a pony that had been sold from Kentucky to someplace north. But Helton-Briggs said she just knew, and Balla said she understood.
“As soon as I saw the picture [at Petfinder.com], that was it,” Helton-Briggs said. “I spent every day with her [while growing up].”
Said Balla: “Somebody said to me, will she know who she is? I said, I’ve been divorced 20 years, but I know my ex-husband. I can tell you every inch of my horses. … Plus, who is going to call from how many hundreds of miles away, wanting to adopt a 38-year-old horse with special needs?”
Balla said she will miss Autumn, after such a rehabilitation effort and the reward of watching the pony recover. But, she said, that is what Casey’s is meant to do. Helton-Briggs said it was appreciated, adding that without the care from Balla and the many volunteers at Casey’s, it’s likely Autumn likely wouldn’t still be alive for her to find.
“We didn’t give up on her,” Balla said.
“And I wouldn’t give up looking for her,” Helton-Briggs said.