The Journey of a Chincoteague Pony

Cricket at 2 months

My Chincoteague Pony, Wish Upon a Star, first came to me as a wild little weanling.  To look at her now, Cricket, as she is known around the barn, you’d never know she started her life as unruly and untrusting as they come.  I first saw her in a pen full of other wild ponies at the 2001 Chincoteague Pony Roundup.  She stood out to me because of the grace with which she moved.  She and her mother were startled and trotted across the pen.  She didn’t move like the rough around the edges critter she appeared to be — she was elegant.

Her band of ponies had been rounded up, along with all the others, by the Saltwater Cowboys who tend to the ponies throughout the year.  This was her first human contact, unless her band of ponies had happened upon hikers or campers in the earlier months.  Although the round up may have been new and surprising to her, the older ponies in the band would have taken it in stride and not gotten too ruffled by it — so likely, neither did she.  Then, people came to look at the ponies in the pen (people like me).  She probably took little interest in them, as the adult ponies do.

Then came the swim.  On Wednesday morning, all of the Chincoteague Ponies are rounded up and driven across the short stretch of water that separates Assateague Island from Chincoteague Island.  This requires a swim.  I’m sure this procedure was a bit of a shock to all the young ponies, but the older ponies are used to this yearly ritual.  Once on Chincoteague, they were driven through the town, past many people — some who get too close to the wild ponies — and into the pens at the Fairgrounds.  Once they’ve arrived, there is much milling about as bands reform after their journey.

When the time comes for the auction, the foals are separated from their mothers, and the babies are selected one by one and wrestled (usually by two men) into the auction pen so people can get a look at them.  This was Cricket’s first physical human contact.  It was likely a rough, loud and stressful experience, but the auction is over quickly, and then it’s into a smaller stall with four or five other pony foals who have been purchased.  Later that day, another round of trauma as the ponies are given their shots by being cornered and held by 2 men while a third administers the shots.  The next day, the ponies are shipped home.  For some, this means a lonely ride home in a trailer alone.  Cricket had lots of company on her ride home — although separated forever from her original band of ponies, she rode home with 6 or 7 other newly purchased foals going to various locations on the east coast.

It may sound like I’m painting a negative picture of the roundup at Chincoteague.  That’s not my intent.  I was grateful to have purchased Cricket at the auction, and the rough handling the ponies may get in the course of the sale is out of necessity, not lack of caring.  The ponies must be wrestled into the pen — they aren’t halter broken, and letting them run loose in the pen would inevitably cause injury to them or to the observers.  The shots must be administered in an abrupt manner — the law requires that ponies being shipped out of state receive vaccinations.  And the trailer ride is what it must be — they have to get to their new homes.  My purpose is not to give a harsh review of the treatment of the ponies, and Cricket in particular, before they get to their new homes — it’s just to illustrate the state of mind she was in when I got her home with me.

When she did arrive at her new home, I had the shipper and his assistant put a new leather halter on her head.  I thought it would be my only chance of getting a hold of her if I absolutely needed to, if she injured herself and needed attention, for example.  The shipper was surprised that I wanted the trailer backed up to an outdoor paddock, rather than into the barn.  Apparently most ponies are put directly into a stall where they can be handled soon after their arrival.  It was my choice to let her be outdoors.  I figured that after the shock of the experience the last 3 days had been for her, I wanted to spare her another major shock — being confined indoors, which she’d never experienced before.

She was eager to stretch her legs after her trip.  She explored the paddock which was now her home — checked out the fence line, the water bucket, the other horses she could see in the other fields.  She would do a quick “fly by” of me, or anyone else who came into her paddock, but she wouldn’t slow down or stop, and we certainly weren’t going to get a hand on her.  She was truly a wild thing.  Her confinement over the past few days gave only an illusion of captivity.

The first few days, my main concern was for her health.  She was shockingly thin when she came to me.  I could count all of her ribs by looking at her.  She had not been weaned before being separated from her mother, so she hadn’t yet made the full transition to grass, and she certainly had no interest in grain or hay.  At first, I was convinced she wasn’t eating, and I was terrified she would starve to death before she figured out what grass was for, so I mixed up some milk replacer.  She also turned her nose up at that, and in a few days, I saw that she was eating grass and nibbling at the hay.  For months, she still had no interest in grain, apples or peppermints.

Over the first few weeks, which turned into months, my main goal was to gain her trust.  I didn’t want her initial human experiences to shape the rest of her interaction with us.  Every day I took a lawn chair and a book and sat in her paddock, near the middle, so she had the option to approach me from whatever direction suited her.  As patiently as possible, I waited for her to come to me.  At first, nothing.  She acted as though she didn’t know I was there.  Days were spent sitting in the field being ignored.  After a week or so, she got curious.  She still didn’t come to me, but she would look at me, and if I talked to her, her ears would flick around as she listened.  She didn’t yet trust me, but I had, at least, come to be a point of interest.  As time went on, she would approach more and more closely, never getting close enough to touch, or even within about 6 feet of where I was sitting.  Eventually, though, curiosity won out.  One day, about a month after bringing her home, I felt warm breath on the back of my neck, and something started tugging on my braid — she was trying to eat my hair!  I don’t know if she was more curious about me, or curious as to whether my hay-colored hair tasted like it looked.  When I turned around to look at her, she ran off.  She had snuck up on me, but getting caught wasn’t in her game plan.

The following days were filled with the same type of thing — she would approach me, but only from behind, and she’d only stay as long as I didn’t look at her.  Eye contact would destroy her bravery and she’d canter off to a safe distance.  I soon discovered, though, that if I didn’t make eye contact, I could reach out and touch her coat, which was beginning to lose it’s baby fur.  If she saw my hand coming, she’d take off, but if I talked to her quietly while I reached out my hand, and I touched her gently someplace where she could pretend she hadn’t noticed (her hindquarters or the back half of her barrel) I could leave my hand there for a few minutes before she wandered off.  It was fantastic!

As time went on, I progressed from patting to scratching.  That’s when I really made a friend.  Her baby coat was coming out in patches, and my scratching helped relive the discomfort.  This is when she started allowing me to scratch her over most of her body — the withers and back — and even make eye contact without running away.  In fact, she would follow me on my path through her paddock to the lawn chair where I could now stand and wait for her to approach me for a bit of grooming.  Once we had crossed this hurdle, things were really on a roll.  I progressed to being able to rub her neck and run my hands down her legs.  That progressed to picking up her feet.

Eventually, this led to me being able to put a hand on her halter.  I started “halter breaking” her by simply taking hold of the halter and restricting her movement for a second or two, not more, when she wanted to move away.  At first, she resisted strongly, and took off, but she then realized it was just a second or two, and the grooming kept up while I was holding on, so it was ok.  I increased the time, little by little, until I could hold on to her, and restrict her from leaving my side, for as long as I wanted.  I then attached a lead rope, and tried to lead her, but that was another matter altogether.  It took a long time to get her to walk on a lead line, but I was in no rush.  It was just the beginning of a long journey for both of us.

I have taken my time with Cricket’s training, from the very start.  It took almost a year before she would walk on a lead line reliably.  I didn’t sit on her back until she was 4.  But I feel that my patience with her has truly paid off.  I have never met a pony with such a quiet disposition.  I can’t take all the credit — certainly nature and genetics played a part as well.  But I am proud of the progress she has made.  She is now 6 years old.  She is trained to go under saddle.  We have started over fences work, including cross country jumping of all kinds.  She trail rides beautifully, in a group (at the front of the line or the back) or even alone.  She is good for a bath (but does like to drink from the hose), for the clippers, for the farrier, or for being blanketed.  She’ll cross running or standing water, walk past a tarp blowing in the wind, load on a trailer and longe with voice commands.  She is truly an amazing pony.  My riding instructor, Jill Knudson, who has experience with all types of horses, regularly comments that Cricket’s personality is constantly amazing to her. The only things I’ve found that Cricket doesn’t handle well are having her mane pulled and getting shots from the vet (although a preemptive humane twitch solves that problem easily).

If I ever have another Chincoteague Pony, or any other foal I raise from its youth, I will bring them along as I did Cricket. I have no idea if it will go as well, but I feel it was the right plan for her. The proof is in the pony.

One Response to “The Journey of a Chincoteague Pony”

  1. Hi, I am the publisher, along with some of my journalism students, of I invite you and your audience to take a look and see what suggestions you have for us. We are still trying to get our material from this past swim week processed and posted.

    Anyway, your story is just super. So well written. I am sure we have photos of your pony in the wild. We have been out on the range several times and have been to all the roundups this past year. We wrote the first story about the Buyback Babes which is on our site and appeared in the Beachcomber the week before pony week.

    I would like very much to post your story and perhaps the next chapter or two, on our site. We have about 15,000 page views a month, but have not yet had time to work on the business side of things. This is a non-school related venture.

    Please let me know if we have permission to put up your story with full credit and a short bio about you. If we can see a photo I will check out our stock of photos to see if we have one and will send it to you. Thanks and good luck with Wish Upon a Star who seems like she has found a great home. Robert Boswell