Two little boys held their candy canes and looked up at the big white horse in the stable. He gazed placidly back, blinking his eyes at those canes. Sean — the horse —...

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Two little boys held their candy canes and looked up at the big white horse in the stable. He gazed placidly back, blinking his eyes at those canes.

Sean — the horse — loves candy canes. He even looked like one. He had red bows in his mane, four red leg wraps, a bridle with bells, a red blanket edged in faux ermine, a red riding pad and a red hat jauntily cocked over one ear.

Sean was an unlikely Santa.

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In 2002, the Arab-Paint gelding was found in a North Snohomish County field, skeletal and nearly lifeless. His evolution from a horse who could not stand up to his role as Santa Pony, having his picture taken with people over the holidays, is quite a story.

“Sean came in one day on Labor Day weekend, more dead than alive,” said Laura Crocker, a four-year volunteer with the Equine Rescue Association.

Volunteers were in shock. He had been left in a neighbor’s pasture by folks who moved out of state, and “the person who had the horse didn’t notice he’d gotten down behind a stack of wood, and by the time our shoer got out there and found him, he was more dead than alive,” Crocker said.

The horse shelter had filled its only open stall the day before with a great-grandson of Seattle Slew.

Santa Pony

The Equine Rescue Association,
a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1997, gives sanctuary to abused and neglected horses, and gives the public instruction in riding and a chance to interact with the horses. It costs about $2,500 a year to keep each horse fed, sheltered, shod and checked by a veterinarian.

Visiting hours
are 1 to 6 p.m. daily at 2506-B 128th St. N.E., east of Marysville. Photos with Santa Pony will continue by appointment up to Christmas. A $5 donation per photo is requested.


or equinerescueassociation

“But luckily, Sean arrived on Volunteer Appreciation Day, and we had a bunch of adults there, and we were able to build a stall for him by that night,” Crocker said.

They looked into his eyes, “and he didn’t look like he wanted to go down,” she said. “He looked like he wanted a chance. You could just sense something.”

Volunteers stayed with him day and night.

“At one point, [Equine Rescue Association founder] Dr. [Vel] Moore, who is in her 70s, was alone with him, and he went down and couldn’t get up,” Crocker said. “So we called the Fire Department across the street, promised them baked goods, and they came over and helped.”

After: Fully recovered, Sean serves as Santa Pony for the Equine Rescue Association. He’s described as “wonderful with the kids.”

Crocker added: “He could not get up by himself for five days. He ate almost constantly. If you look at him now, you cannot believe this horse ever suffered.”

Horses are amazingly strong and resilient, Crocker noted.

“By the third day, he said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to live.’ And he started struggling really hard to get up. And by the fifth day, I looked out, and I saw him get up. And that was incredible.”

By December 2002, Sean was looking pretty good. And Crocker remembered a place that had done Santa Pony pictures when her daughter was young and thought it would be “such a fun thing to revive.”

“And since the rescue needs as many benefits that we can do, it just seemed a natural,” she said.

Crocker looked on eBay and found a Santa Pony suit, which fit the nearly 900-pound horse neatly.

For Chad and Alex, ages 5 and 2, two little boys getting on Sean’s back for a photograph, it was an important photo session. This Christmas, their father, Michael Strunk, will be far away on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Their mother, Stephanie Strunk, who learned of Santa Pony from a friend, planned to send the holiday picture to her husband by e-mail.

“[Sean is] wonderful with the kids. I trust that horse more than any other horse I’ve ever met,” Crocker said. “He’s sharp as a whip, very protective of his mares. What we use as an elf or a reindeer is his favorite mare.”

That would be Buttercup, a small, pretty, one-eyed Morgan-cross that wore reindeer antlers and stood nearby. There are also 17 other horses, two dogs and three generations of cats in this peaceable kingdom.

The Equine Rescue Association welcomes opportunities for folks to meet the horses at its new location east of Marysville, where it moved from Smokey Point last summer. Each year, it has a horse show and pony rides, and hopes to feature “hug a horse” for Valentine’s Day weekend. It depends on staffing for this all-

volunteer, nonprofit group.

“When I started here, I was angered,” said Cathy Scott, the president of the association, “at what some people can do to a horse.”

But that changes, Moore said, when people learn an important point from the horses themselves.

“You admire how much a horse can handle and go forward, and let it go,” Moore said.

For the past two weekends of photos, Sean has been such a pro that when he sensed someone was scared, “He’d lean down, really gently, nuzzle them and sort of tell them, ‘No, it’s OK.’ I’ve never met a horse that’s so sensitive,” said Crocker.

“When he gets this Santa outfit on, it’s like, ‘Oh, show today. I know how to do that,’ ” Moore said.

“That’s why he’s Santa Pony,” Scott said. “He’s a miracle.”

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or