Sightings of Prince Bring Joy to Buy Back Babes
By Hannah Pavlas
Anyone who has visited the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coast of Virginia and Maryland knows that it is a place of magic, a place where prayers are answered and dreams come true.
Every summer, during the last week of July, an event called Pony Penning attracts thousands of people from all over the country and across the world. These people come to witness the oldest wild pony roundup in America and to see the story of “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry, come to life. Just like in the Misty book, which was first published in 1947, the ponies on the wildlife refuge of Assateague Island are rounded up and, at slack tide, are swum across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague.
Tourists and natives alike cheer when the ponies reach the shore, then, after the ponies are rested, the excitement continues as they are escorted by the famous Salt Water Cowboys to Chincoteague’s carnival grounds where the famous Pony Penning Auction is held annually on the last Thursday of July.
Every child and most adults who visit the island look longingly at the beautiful foals loitering about the pens awaiting the auction. These ponies are special. Their very countenance is stamped by a glorious wildness, beautiful to behold. The wind and the sea of their island home seem to have stirred an eternal whirlpool in the souls of these ponies, so that whoever takes home a pony takes home a piece of the spirit of Assateague.
The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, the owners and caretakers for the wild ponies on the Virginia side of Assateague and the management of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge where the ponies roam, have determined that their side of the island can support about 150 ponies. The Pony Penning Auction helps to maintain a healthy number of ponies; the new foals born each year are sold to the public at the auction. A lucky few will place the winning bid on a foal, and those who do experience a thrill like no other; the pure joy to be found in the fulfillment of a dream is a feeling which can only be described as miraculous. The happiness on the faces of those who win is so infectious that it spreads through the crowd until the air itself seems charged with their excitement. Tears of joy are not uncommon, even among strangers. Winning a foal is truly an amazing thing both to experience and to witness. But what satisfaction can there be in buying a foal you cannot keep? A group of women known as the Buy Back Babes know the answer to this question.
Jean Bonde has been a resident of Chincoteague Island since 1995. In my interview with her, Jean told me about the first time she visited Assateague with her husband.
“We pulled into Tom’s Cove Campground like everybody else does, and the next morning got up and rode out on the refuge, and there was a little band of ponies right in the middle of the road. And that was it. I was hooked. My husband says, ‘Well, should we move back there?’ And I’m going, ‘OH yes, yes, yes!!’”
And so the wild ponies of Assateague gained a new friend. Jean immersed herself in learning more about them and about how the cowboys cared for them.
“I used to sit down at the corral and just listen to what people had to say, and listen to what the cowboys had to say, and watch what they did,…” she said.
It is out of a mutual love for the Chincoteague Ponies that the group now known as the Buy Back Babes was formed. Carol Smith, an original member of the Buy Back Babes, said that one day, a group of women including Jean and herself, were talking together out on the refuge and the subject of the buybacks (ponies that are bought at the auction to be returned to live wild on the island) came up. Says Carole, “Someone noted that the price of the buybacks has been gradually increasing over the years and that winning the bid on a buyback was becoming out of reach for some women to ever be able to do so. Individual members of the group have bought a number of ponies for themselves over the years. A suggestion was made that we perhaps pool some funds and try to get a group buyback as a fun event.”
And so it was that at the 2002 Pony Penning Auction, they congregated together to win their first buyback foal as a group. The little filly they won is out of the popular island stallion known as Surfer Dude; they named her Gidget. Smith remembers that she “had his same regal looks with fabulous white blaze and sun kissed light mane and tail.” Furthermore she recalls, “When going to the payment booth after winning the bid, the officials wanted the name of the buyer. Well there was no one ‘buyer name’ so Nancy Stills of the group threw out the suggestion that we were the ‘Buy Back Babes’- and the funny name just stuck. For short we are now referred to as the BBB’s.”
For the first five years, the BBB’s could only purchase female foals, or fillies. Jean noted that colts (male foals) are only offered as buybacks every 10 years or so, since the fire company needs only a limited number of stallions on the island. But in the year of 2007, the fire company decided that it was time to keep back a few colts as future herd sires.
The BBB’s were excited by this rumor and kept a watchful eye on the colts being born on Assateague, but there was one in particular which seized their attention. They saw him one spring day, standing with his mother, a mare they called “My Little Secret” (she has since been renamed Sand Cherry). The mare and colt belonged to a band which was led by the stunning buckskin pinto stallion named Tornado, who was well-known for producing beautiful buckskin and palomino foals with outstanding personalities, just like their father’s. Out of all the colts born on Assateague that year, it was this son of Tornado that the Buy Back Babes fell in love with the most. For one thing he was similar in color to the famous Misty of Chincoteague, the pony responsible for the fame of the islands. And his white on gold coloring would make him easy to spot out on the refuge, “even without binoculars,” Carole said.
“We kinda try to stay away from the solid colored horses because they are too hard to pick out,” Jean said.
When the 2007 Pony Penning Auction day arrived, the Buy Back Babes were there waiting for their little colt.
“When the palomino pinto colt came out into the auction grounds, we started with a large bid, hoping to scare away the competition,” Carole recalls. “That strategy did not work and a bidding war ensued with at least one other party determined to win the bid for this special buyback foal.”
The Buy Back Babes started the bid for their Misty-look-alike colt at a whopping $10,000, just $500 away from the highest amount ever paid for a foal at the auction. But it was a rare thing to be able to buy a colt, a future herd sire, as a buyback, and especially one with his special coloring… and whoever the BBB’s competition was knew that as well as they did. But the difference between the BBB’s and their competition was that they refused to lose; they would not be outbid. With determination in their hearts, they fought for their colt until the price on his head was a mouth-dropping $17, 500, the highest bid ever for a foal at the Pony Penning Auction. The BBB’s competition dropped out of the bidding and the auctioneer declared the palomino pinto colt “SOLD!”
“We were so excited when we won the bid and jumped up and cheered for joy!” Carole remembers.
The Buy Back Babe’s were elated to welcome their first colt to their ever-growing family of wild ponies. To them it doesn’t matter that they don’t get to take the foal home; it is enough to know that they are helping to preserve the Chincoteague pony breed which they love so dearly… and the thought of their ponies living a glorious life of freedom on Assateague Island makes the money spent worth every penny.
One of the privileges of winning a buyback is that you get to give the foal an official name. Carole said it was at a lasagna party at Jean’s Chincotague home that the BBB’s gathered together to brainstorm for the perfect name for the palomino pinto colt. The name they finally settled on was “Tornado’s Prince of Tides,” or Prince for short, and the BBB’s are always on the look out for their boy whenever they visit Assateague Island .
Bonde says Prince has lived mostly on the south end of Assateague ever since he was released back into the wild, which means they probably see him more often than any of their seven other buybacks, who live primarily on the north end. Prince, who turned five years old this spring, already has a group of 10 mares of his own and they know of at least two colts belonging to him which were sold at last year’s Pony Penning Auction. Chief and Riptide, two island stallions close in age to Prince, have not as of yet acquired bands of their own. Bonde says Prince matured quickly; he has had a string of mares for years. “He’s a go-getter little boy!” she laughed.
One of the sons of Prince sold at the 2011 Pony Penning Auction now belongs to Deb Ober of the Chincoteague Pony Rescue in Ridgely, Maryland. She also has Tornado, Prince’s famous sire, living on her farm, since the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company decided to remove him from Assateague in 2008 when he was injured fighting other stallions. Tornado is much beloved by Debbie, and she was beyond happy to welcome Prince’s son, Tornado’s grandson, to the farm in May of this year. Debbie had met the family who bought Prince’s colt at the Pony Penning Auction and had given them her card just in case they ever wanted to sell him. When Debbie got a phone call asking her if she would take the colt, she could hardly contain her excitement!
“I think I jumped up and down for two days!” she said.
And what are her big plans for Prince Junior? “He will be added to our stallion group and used for breeding in the years to come,” Debbie said.
The Chincoteague Pony Rescue is home to both Debbie’s personal horses and many rescue ponies ranging from foals to adults, which she rehabilitates before putting them up for adoption. If you dream of having your own Chincoteague Pony but are unsure if raising a born-wild foal is the right choice for you, you might consider adopting one of the many wonderful ponies from the rescue.
Even though the Buy Back Babe’s all love Prince, who is their only male buyback to date, Jean tells me that they have a special place in their hearts for all of the ponies:
“I would say 9/10ths of the horses are our pets… because we know them, and we know which ones are which and what their names are. We know their personalities…It’s interesting who does what and why, and that’s what we kinda follow.” This time of the year email notes are flying with the latest report of a sighting from a BBB member.
Jean describes Prince as “an easy going horse”, but a story she related to me shows that he is also extremely cunning, intelligent and has a great sense of humor!
Jean says that one year, the cowboys rounded up all the ponies, but failed to bring in Prince.
“You’re missing a horse!” Jean said to one of the cowboys.
“Well, who?” he asked.
“Well, the $17, 500 horse!” she replied.
She asked the cowboy if they planned on going back out to bring Prince in, but he said no. Overhearing this, Susanne Craig of the BBB’s approached the cowboy.
“You’re not going back out and get him?” she asked.
“Noooo…” he replied.
“I came 200 miles to see him.”
“Well you can see him the next time you come,” said the cowboy.
“I am sick and there may not be a next time,” Susanne told him.
“So the next day 35 cowboys went out on their horses to bring him in. He was out there alone. Thirty-five cowboys it took to get him in,” Bonde said. “They chased him into a mud puddle and surrounded him…But you know what he did? He played with them! … He would come around into a set of trees and then turn and run, and run right through the cowboys, out the other side, and then they would take chase. We (Jean and the other BBB’s) just howled from the road watching this, you know, and we thought that was so funny! And he was just playing with them!”
At last the cowboys were able to rope Prince and bring him in. Prince had had his fun.
“He just pranced in,” Jean said.
Jean has a photo in her hallway of this memorable incident which shows Prince with the ropes on him, being escorted by the cowboys. It is one of hundreds of pony photos on the walls and in albums in the home of Jean and Wayne Bonde. Her TV sitting room is a museum of pony recollections and photos.
Recently Prince demonstrated his outstanding sense of free will once again when he suddenly and for no apparent reason plunged into the channel and swam his whole herd of mares and foals from Assateague Island over to Tom’s Cove Campground on Chincoteague. Perhaps he thought they might get a head start on the 87th Annual Pony Swim, which will take place on Wednesday, July 25 this year. The auction will be held at the carnival grounds the next day.
Every year the Buy Back Babes gather together on Chincoteague Island to enjoy the magic of Pony Penning week. Some members come from as far as California to reunite with their fellow BBB’s and for the chance to see their wild pony friends, including their beloved Prince. They usually also come to buy a new pony. This year they wondered if they might come simply to enjoy the auction, without buying a pony themselves. But at the spring roundup earlier this year, some of the BBB’s were present… and “she was the first foal we saw,” Jean said, and I knew she was wistfully picturing the sweet little filly in her mind’s eye. She informed me that the BBB’s are “talking it up”.
“But what we want is for her to stay in the herd, out on the refuge,” she acknowledged.
The chance to follow the life of a wild pony is a precious gift to these women. They see them grow from sweet, gangly little foals into breathtakingly beautiful adult horses with foals of their own tagging along at their sides.
“Been watching over them for 16 years,” Jean said. “Seen ‘em come, and seen ‘em go. Babies go to be sold. The older mares, every spring…who comes in, doesn’t come in… You don’t see them dying or dead… very rarely do you see them. They go off to die. After two roundups if you don’t see them, they presume them to be dead,” she said, sorrow apparent in her voice.
But as for Prince, why, he is the father of a whole new generation of wild ponies. Fans of the Chincoteague Ponies know Prince as the history-making foal who sold for $17, 500 at the 2007 Pony Penning Auction. The Buy Back Babe’s recognize him as their friend, a horse with a unique personality that embodies everything they hold dear about Assateague Island . Their satisfaction in him and in their other buybacks is wholly warranted. I think that these ponies are true representatives of the heart and soul of the women who love them… the women we know as the Buy Back Babes.
This is the third story Hannah has written for Wild Pony Tales. She and the publisher Robert Boswell have never met and never talked on the phone. Her assignments are sent by email and all communications and discussions are by email. Hannah was the winner of the 2010 Feather Fund pony which brought her on her only trip to the islands.