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Seattle PI
P.O. Box 1909, Seattle WA 98111-1909 Phone (206) 448-8000


August 22, 2002

PONIES YOU MIGHT WANT TO TAKE HOME


BY JON HAHN P-I COLUMNIST

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Section: Life and Arts, Page: E2I NEVER READ "Misty of Chincoteague" by Marguerite Henry, perhaps because it was a story about a girl and boy's abiding desire to have a pony from a herd that lived on an East Coast island. But after seeing some of these ponies now transplanted to the Squalicum Valley east of Bellingham, I felt like bundling one into the back of the pickup and taking it home.

Hey, I grew up on Chicago's Northwest Side, and the only horses we saw were old bags of bones pulling the junkman's cart down the alley. The pony rides at the Lincoln Park Zoo also featured poor, zombielike critters that plodded endless circuits in the summer dust.

But Chincoteague ponies are in a league of their own, and the small herd we saw last weekend up north has the grace and regal stature of thoroughbreds combined with obvious intelligence and the playfulness of puppies. What's not to like?

As we fed carrots to the mares and their 2-month-old foals, I could understand why Gale Park Frederick has spent the past 25 years transplanting her original three Chincoteague ponies and raising 10 or so generations of these loving beasts. It must hurt a little every time she sells one - there's a long waiting list - because she's sort of an aunt or godmother to each foal as well as the full-grown ponies.

This year in July, as has happened for decades, the small herd of wild ponies is rounded up on scrubby Assateague Island off the Virginia-Maryland coast and driven across the small channel of saltwater to neighboring Chincoteague Island, where the foals are auctioned off. The actual drive, done at slack tide, and the run of ponies up Chincoteague's main street drew an estimated 50,000 tourists last month. Only the luckiest and best-heeled succeed in going home with a pony. Last year's top price was $10,500, Gale said.

The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department maintains the herd of about 150 ponies that spend their lives on the Virginia side of the Assateague National Wildlife Refuge, under a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. A smaller herd of about 40 to 50 ponies, fenced off on the Maryland side of the island, is the property of and is maintained by that state. The proceeds from the annual pony auction go for maintenance of the Virginia-side herd, as well as expenses of the fire department. Last year, the auction raised almost $167,000, with the average pony price of just under $2,000.

Gale and James Frederick's Chincoteagues sell for anywhere from $250 to $10,000 each as foals and for about $10,000 for a broken 3-year-old. Shipping is a tad extra.

These beasts are to horses what longhorns were to beef. The Chincoteagues are said to descend from some 17 Arabian horses that swam ashore from the wreck of a Spanish galleon sometime in the 1600s. They graze on sparse local sea-grass and other vegetation and drink salt water, which gives them a bloated look. Ironically, while they can adjust to the custom timothy, alfalfa and commercial feed diet and fresh water here, they must be kept on hard, dry land, because the moisture in lush pastureland causes them to founder with hoof diseases.

Only about 14 hands high and weighing no more than about 800 pounds in maturity, Chincoteagues are solidly built and seem to have more than just above-average intelligence. They're downright sociable. No doubt, some of that is nurtured in a place like the Fredericks' spread.

Even as we came up the drive of the 10-acre spread, Gale knew someone was coming because Nine, also known from her distinguishing palomino markings as Arrowhead Nine, neighed a loud welcome. That soon was echoed in a chorus from a nearby corral housing her "Spice Girls," Ginger and Cinnamon.

The highlight of our visit - one that surely would make any youngster start lobbying long and hard for a Chincoteague pony - was feeding carrot tips to two foals: Black Lightning, out of 7-year-old Black Diamond, and Born To Run, out of Bay Side. With their mothers never straying too far, and often alongside, cadging their own full-size carrots, the foals rolled in the sun and then nudged us repeatedly, like puppies, wanting small carrot tips. Their soft lips nibbled at our fingers and shirt sleeves and they nuzzled constantly.

When the Fredericks' three children were still at home and very active in the care and training of the Chincoteagues, the horses would chase after them in the fields. The horses often would pick up the hat of their son, James, now deceased, if it fell off and bring it to him or tease him with it, Gale recalled.

Nowadays, the training and breaking of these delightful creatures is done mostly by a professional who comes several times each week. But Gale and Jim handle the thrice-daily custom feedings and the grooming and regular maintenance chores. "My husband retired seven months ago after a long career as an executive for Intalco (Alcoa Intalco Aluminum), and he said he hasn't had any trouble trading a desk for a wheelbarrow!" Gale said.

Gale grew up in a house just a stone's throw from here, and her working-class family had only an old gray brood mare on their acreage. She met Jim, an engineer from New York and fresh out of graduate school, and they married in 1968. They lived in California till his work took them to Rocky Ridge, Md., where they had 46 acres and stables. "That's where I first learned about the Chincoteagues, and in 1976, we got the first of our original two fillies and a colt. We didn't have any ideas about breeding them until we came back here in 1981," she said.

About 15 years ago, Gale founded an international horse registry for the Chincoteagues. The Web page of her National Chincoteague Pony Association (www.pony-chincoteague.com) offers a wealth of information and background on the ponies, their history, etc. But despite the fact there are more than 180 Chincoteagues in private ownership in the United States, hers is the only breeding farm for the registered ponies. "And I'd be willing to give a price break to anyone who wants to get two and start their own," she said in mock exasperation.

But you can tell, when she nuzzles between her Spice Girls, "that Gale loves her long hours of work among and for these very special beasts. "And we've got a new system of (closed-circuit TV) cameras so that I can watch the maternity area in one barn from a screen in our bedroom, and other areas and barns from a screen in another part of the house. That way, I don't have to get up in the middle of the night if I hear one of them talking and want to see what's going on."

Who does she think she's kidding? This lady is up at 5 a.m. every day to begin her work, and those ponies get their first of three daily meals at 6 a.m. If the ponies don't smile into the camera, you can bet Gale would be out there in a flash.

After all, they're family.

INFORMATION: The non-profit National Chincoteague Pony Association is at 2595 Jensen Road, Bellingham, WA 98226. Contact www.pony-chincoteague.com or 360-671-8338.

Jon Hahn's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Call him at 206-448-8317 or send e-mail to jonhahn@seattlepi.com.

 

 


Chincoteague Pony Annual Swim
Last Wednesday in July


 


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