Friday, July 21, 2006
A Pony Tale
A pony tale.
A gazillion years ago, back when I was in 5th grade in snow covered North Tonawanda, NY, my teacher, Mrs. Clark, read a book to us each day after lunch. It gave the slow pokes a chance to get back from lunch (we went home back then) and unwind from the running and craziness of the lunch break. One day she started the book, Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. My imagination took flight. I promised myself that one day I would go to school on that island where kids actually rode their ponies to school. From snowy NY to Chincoteague would take a miracle! The really weird thing is, it actually happened – but not quite as I envisioned it. Chincoteague was one of the schools I was assigned to in my first year of teaching in Virginia. I was itinerant, so I taught on the mainland in the morning and at Chincoteague High School in the afternoon. I was real disappointed to find out that the kids didn’t actually ride their ponies to school.
After a year or two, I taught some of the Beebe kids, from the family mentioned in the book. Misty was still alive though elderly. The Beebe kids made sure I got to go to their home to meet Misty on more than one occasion. I have pictures buried in a box somewhere… By the time all was said and done, I had taught 3 generations of Beebe kids. But there was only one Misty. I count Misty on my list of famous people I have met. Don’t tell Katherine Hepburn, OK?
Next week will be the annual Pony Swim and Pony Penning. Though I have lived here on the shore 40+ years, I had never been to the Pony Penning until a few years ago. Well, I hate crowds for one thing, heat for another, and then there’s the thing about feeding the mosquitoes, the alternate state bird here. (And you thought it was the Cardinal! HA!) I am not here to say I approve or disapprove of the way things are done… I know the vets swear to me the ponies are not hurt in this process, but doesn’t trauma count for anything? Citing worse examples (hunting mustangs out West with helicopters for example) doesn’t make it any better, and let’s face it, any animal that is sold or taken away from its mother is traumatized. You got a pet? Is it still with its mother? For that matter, are you still with yours? Well, you know what I mean.
Anyway, the herd needs to be thinned periodically as the island is only so big and will sustain only so many horses. The herd somehow or another belongs to the Chincoteague Fire Department… I still wonder about that deal… but they do look after the animals, make sure they get their shots and regular physical exams, etc. So the last week in July, they round up a bunch of them, swim them across the channel and drive them into town to the carnival grounds where the young ones are auctioned off on Thursday. All the proceeds go to the Fire department.
I have been fortunate to watch the swim from a boat, not up on the shore in the crowd of several thousand. It is quite an experience. If there is a real tiny new born, they take it aboard a barge so it doesn’t have to swim. Gee, how nice. I guess they see the ponies as ponie$ and that’s it. The ponies swim across at slack tide. That is the point between high and low tide when the tide is not pulling particularly either way. They claim high tide is easier on the ponies than low tide as they do not hit and scrape their legs on the bottom as easily. Now the truth is, the ponies DO swim the channels themselves when they want to. On some parts of Assateague they do it frequently. They even go out in the ocean and stand in the surf on very hot days or on days when the mosquitoes are real bad. So it is not something they have never experienced – except for the babies. And the firemen are on horseback swimming right along with the herd. They call them Saltwater Cowboys.
The national park service tries to protect the herds from the public rather than the other way around, as the ponies suffer more at the hands of the public than the people who occasionally get bitten or kicked. I am sure those folks would not agree with me, but if they had kept their distance, they would not get hurt. However, the people who ignore the signs telling them PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE PONIES are the real culprits. They teach the ponies to be moochers and that people mean food even if it is in the form of potato chips or nachos. So then when the next poor fool comes along and decides to pet the nice pony (they are wild animals, dolt!) and the pony bites because his space is invaded or there is no food in the hand that wants to touch… well, who’s fault is that exactly? Not the pony’s fault!
I have seen people try to put their kid on the pony’s back, pose for the camera, etc and then wonder why the pony gets nasty. Hey! The last people had apples and candy, where’s yours? So now the ponies are behind fences for the most part and kept almost out of sight. If you are one of the lucky ones, you might get to see who put that pile of pony poop in the middle of the road, but most of the wanderers are chased back behind that fence. And it is a shame, too. It used to be fun to see them amble along the road or run in the surf on a hot summer day. They still have that opportunity if they can figure how to get around the fences that are there to keep them safe – or if you go up (or down) the beach far enough and away from the public beach section.
Should you decide to come to the pony penning, book your room about a year in advance as the shore is over loaded during Pony Penning week.
If you have a chance, read Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague. Misty was a real pony… I remember the day Misty died and the Beebe boy (who was in my class at that moment) was called to come home. It was a serious and solemn occasion like a famous local hero had died. Well, indeed she did. Misty put Chincoteague on the map. I remember a new teacher from away asking where the Beebe boy was, she had seen him in my class but he hadn’t shown up for her’s. I said, “Misty died.” Stupid me, I thought the whole world knew who Misty was.
“Who’s that? His mother?” she asked. I gave her one of those incredulous looks, blinked a few times and said, “No, Misty, the pony.” Like what planet did you drop in from?
“He went home because a pony died?” she asked and you could see she was getting ticked. “Well he will just get a zero for today!” Not that he would have cared, but I suggested she not do that. Even if Misty had been “just any old pony” it would have been a good enough reason for me.
“But don’t you realize Misty IS Chincoteague! Do you mean to tell me you never heard of Chincoteague ponies? You never read Misty of Chincoteague? You really don’t know who Misty is?”
Maybe I will get back to Chincoteague and the pony penning one day – if Boy Bobby ever comes home to live again. But, maybe I will have to be content to just see something running thru the marsh a half a mile away on my next trip up there. And I will remember Misty and that miracles do happen, just not the way we plan them.
note: most photos are borrowed. Thanks!