By Misty Thornton
He got his first horse when he was 7. When he was 12 he read Marguerite Henry’s “Misty” and Chincoteague immediately became a place he wanted to visit. His dad brought him to his first Pony Penning at age 14. In July Tom Garner, from Ayden, North Carolina expects to ride forn his 32nd year as a Salt Water Cowboy.
On that first trip, Mr. Garner said they actually missed the swim, arriving too late, but it didn’t matter because he got to see the ponies and the cowboys. But the mystic of Misty stayed with him. “It was about horses, that was the main thing. I enjoyed the story and knew it wasn’t that far from where I lived, at the time in Gaston, N.C.”
The next year, young Garner was back on the Island. “We had to come over on the ferry,” he remembers. “There was no bridge then.”
Mr. Garner, now 60, said he has loved horses all his life. “Both my granddads were horsemen,” he said. His feelings for the cowboy life were made stronger by watching the westerns that dominated TV. ” I grew up in the 50′s,” he said, “and I really liked the westerns.”
When Mr. Garner turned 17, he said, he made a commitment to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and he said it was an honor to take his first ride along side the ponies and 35 other cowboys in 1966. After that year he didn’t ride in a roundup again 1978 when he came back and has since ridden every year.
For several years Mr. Garner has ridden his horse, “Buzz,” a buckskin. He could fit right into one of the TV westerns, with his chaps, jacket, gloves, boots, western saddle and what might pass for a cowboy hat. But he needs all this gear, and a full can of mosquito repellent to deal with the hazards of riding in a roundup on Assateague.
Besides the heat, which can be overbearing in July, the cowboys have to contend with several varieties of biting flies, ticks, brier bushes, and holes that horses sometimes don’t see and, of course, mud.
“One spring roundup a few years ago a nor’easter moved in,” he said. “In the morning we had thunder and lighting and by the time we finished the rain had turned to sleet.” Mr. Garner said the cowboys really had keep a tight rein on their mounts. “In the driving rain if you don’t keep your horse in motion he will turn his back to the wind. It was the wettest and coldest I have ever been in my life.”
Mr. Garner said he has been thrown twice because the horse’s hooves got stuck in the mud. He said he was lucky he didn’t break any bones, but other riders have been injured during round ups.
“The job is definitely harder than it looks,” said Mr. Garner. “Getting out there and just riding through marsh and grass sounds easy, but it’s not. Each step your horse takes you hear the sound “squish, squash, squish, squash.” Bringing in the ponies is a lot of work and taking them through the town they seem to wander off every once and a while.” But Mr. Garner, nor any of the other cowboys, would rather be anyplace else. “It’s a real honor, to ride,” he said, “and I enjoy seeing spectators enjoying the horses and look forward to it each year.”
There are three roundups each year, one in the fall, one in the spring and the one during the July Pony Penning, an event that has gotten much bigger since it began around 1925. Now up to 40,000 people visit Chincoteague and Assateague for the annual event. Money raised from the auction of the foals and from the carnival supports the fire company which owns the ponies.
The Virginia ponies, about 150 plus foals, are divided into the southern and northern herds. The southern herd, sometimes seen on the range on the right side on the way out to the beach, is brought into the big corral on Beach Road usually late on Friday. On Saturday morning each pony gets a visit from Dr. Charlie Cameron, their official veterinarian. The much larger northern herd, is not seen by many visitors to Assateague. The only ways to see these ponies is by boat, by taking the tour bus operated by the Chincoteague Natural History Association, or by hiking about five miles out on a service road. No motor vehicles or bikes are allowed. This herd is driven into another big corral 3 ½ miles out on the service road and gets to see Dr. Cameron around mid-day on Saturday.
During Pony Penning, early on Monday morning the northern ponies will be driven from the corral to the Atlantic Ocean, then moved in a formation of cowboys along the sand, then down Beach Road to be put in the corral with the southern ponies. This event now draws over 3,000 spectators and is known as the Beach Run.
When all the ponies are in the Beach Road corral, it is not to the liking of the stallions that don’t want their bands of mares mixed in with all the other ponies. The stallions will sometimes rear up against each other, often biting and kicking each other. Things calm down somewhat after they have been in the pen for awhile but displays or pony tempers are frequent.
While in the pens Dr. Cameron will give them several medications and sSome ponies will have their hooves trimmed.
Mr. Garner drives 250 miles to get to Chincoteague, pulling Buzz in his trailer. His wife, Sandra, usually comes with him along with their 28 year old daughter, Jessica Garner Landmark, who has been coming to Pony Penning for as long as she can remember. Now making the trip they bring along their 3 year old granddaughter, Lauren. By the time they get back home they will have been gone eight days, staying the whole week in a rented cottage. “Some cowboys come from even further away than I do,” said Mr. Garner.
Jessica has been going to Pony Penning all her life, said Garner. “To Jessica and others in my family, going to Chincoteague over the years was Disneyland. They didn’t want to go anyplace else.”
Getting together with fellow riders is part of what the cowboys look forward to each round up. “Walter Marks is a very good friend,” said Mr. Garner and his daughter, Anna, and our Jessica are best friends. Mr. Marks is in his 29th year as a cowboy. He is a retired Virginia state trooper.
Mr. Garner is retired from the U.S. government Social Security Administration. He spends his time now taking care of his horses, goats and cows and he and his wife baby-sit their granddaughter three days a week. “This keeps me busy,” he said.
Mr. Garner believes that one day there will be cowgirls riding alongside the cowboys out on the range. “Women are good horse people,” he said. “This would be a great job for them.” He said that around the early 1960s there were women on the horses in the round up.
There is one outcome of Garner’s association with the Salt Water Cowboys of which he is especially proud. In 2004 he was made an honorary member of the fire company. “Not many volunteer riders are granted this honor,” said Garner. “I have the letter from the fire company on my wall at home.”