Wild Horses

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Virginia’s Pony Herds

Darcy Cole takes off down a trail on Assateague Island in Virginia’s far northeastern corner. Here, she hunts horses.

And when she sees one? She starts shooting. Over and over. With a camera.

This photographer captures the famous Chincoteague Ponies in pictures and promotes these ponies with calendars, an identification book, baseball caps and T-shirts that showcase their beauty—and their beautiful surroundings in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island.

“I’m trying to do this as a business,” says Cole. “But I would do this anyway, because I just like to be out there and watch them.”

Cole likes seeing the babies. As many as 70 are born each year among this breed, she says.

But it takes work. Cole is gone for several hours a day—about 300 days a year—on treks that range from six to 16 miles, venturing to see the northern herd that chomp on grass and salt marsh in a seaside oasis just below the Maryland border.

“I describe it more as a passion,” Cole says. “I document the herd. I take lots of notes, so when a mare has a foal, I can look back at my notes last year and can tell who the probable sire is.”

However, the origin of the Chincoteague Ponies isn’t as well documented.

One story says the breed stems from a Spanish galleon that wrecked off the coast, and the ponies came galloping out of the sea onto the island. Still more say the ponies originated from early Virginians who let their horses graze on Assateague.

Cole subscribes to both theories, saying she feels the ponies must have come from a mixture.

“We know for sure that there was a shipwreck,” Cole says. “And we know that new ponies started showing up on the tax records after that shipwreck.”

While the Chincoteague Ponies are her passion (dating back to 2013), Cole has twice trekked to the other side of the state to search for Virginia’s other wild pony breed.
“They have a lot of lookalikes that look like ours,” Cole says of the Grayson Highlands Ponies. “Their ponies are smaller, and they have some colors that we don’t have. And the terrain is very different. So it’s a real contrast between the flat terrain and the mountain terrain.”

The Grayson Highlands Ponies are an increasingly famous breed in Grayson County, just above the North Carolina border in Southwest Virginia. These rock hopping horses live in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and adjacent Grayson Highlands State Park in what you might call an inverse environment compared to the marshy sea-level sands of Assateague.

Not much bigger than miniature horses, the Grayson Highlands Ponies stand about four feet tall and forage for food by nibbling grasses that grow between rocky outcrops at elevations nearly a mile in the sky.

These ponies arrived in 1974, thanks to horse breeder Bill Pugh, who put the horses on the mountain environment to help keep the bald areas open.

Those bald areas—crossed by the Appalachian Trail—were created when large-scale logging took place in this area about a century ago.

“But there’s not near as much grass on top of that mountain as there used to be,” says Wilburn Ridge Pony Association President Brother Moore. “There are hundreds of acres up there that used to have grass, and it’s gone.”

According to Moore, their ponies are scattered.

“And they just go wherever they want to. They can go from Elk Garden plum to Troutdale. There are no fences to stop them,” he says.

The Chincoteague Ponies have become a tourist attraction over time. However, this year, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, large-scale gatherings have been canceled, and that means there will be few if any spectators at the annual pony swim, held on the last Saturday of July, when “Saltwater Cowboys” of the Eastern Shore round up Chincoteague Ponies to swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.

In turn, the annual pony auction is being held online (July 23-29), as a way to continue a tradition that began in 1924, says Denise Bowden, spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

The auction thins out the herd and raises money for the fire department. But, due to the coronavirus, the annual carnival in Chincoteague will not be held, resulting in as much as a $500,000 loss for the fire department, Bowden says.

Each year, like the “Saltwater Cowboys” of Chincoteague’s fire department, members of the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association round up the youngest ponies and then put them up for auction.

Proceeds from the auction help pay for the remaining herd, as well as raise money for local fire departments at Troutdale and Rugby.

Unfortunately, the auctions of the past few years have been plagued by varmints: Coyotes are often to blame for the killing of young ponies—between their births in spring and when the auction arrives during the Grayson Highlands Fall Festival in late September.

“Coyotes get the best part of them,” Moore says. “They’ll just be disappearing a few at a time.”

Either breed—Chincoteague or Grayson Highlands—have about 150 in total; those numbers are kept in control by auctions.

On sale, a Chincoteague Pony might fetch $4,000. One pony sold for $25,000 in 2015.

Grayson Highlands Ponies sell for a few hundred bucks. And one has gone for as low as $35.

“We used to have a lot of dealers come there and buy a whole load,” Moore says. “And now it’s just individual people buying one.”

You don’t have to be in the market for a pony to take in the beauty of these mysterious animals. But there are some words of advice from locals.

The small ponies of the High Country are given dietary supplements during winter. But they are often also given treats by travelers on trails—what’s considered a no-no among officials at Grayson Highlands State Park.

“We recommend that you do not feed them anything at all,” says Theresa Tibbs, an office manager at Grayson Highlands State Park.

Healthy snacks such as carrots and apples can have dangerous chemicals, Tibbs says. “So we ask people to not feed them. It’s on signs and in brochures.”

Another thing: These shaggy creatures may appear playful. But be forewarned, Tibbs says. “Even though they come up to people, they really are wild. And people need to respect that.”

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