By Tammy Rickman
You never know what can come from a group of ladies standing around, talking with time on their hands. Just ask the Buyback Babes.
From across the country, they are trickling into Chincoteague, preparing to attend the roundup, swim and auction during Pony Penning. But they have important business to attend to, too. They will spend their money on several ponies at the auction.
It all started in 2001. No one knows the details better than Jean Bonde, a member of the Buybacks, whose home on the Island is the unofficial headquarters for the group.
She and her husband moved to Chincoteague, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 14 years ago after spending a lot of time hunting the perfect retirement location. According to Jean they drove around in their RV. She said they knew they wanted to retire on the water but with costs in California where they lived, they knew it would not be in California. They happened to land at Tom’s Cove Camp Ground on Chincoteague. She said they didn’t even know there was a road to Assateague the first time they came. They just planned to drive to the edge of the island and look over at Assateague.
After arriving and settling in they drove out toward Assateague and discovered the bridge between the islands and wild ponies roaming freely; this was before fences were put up along the road. Jean said, “I knew when I saw them this was where we would retire because anyplace that lets horses walk around on the road is ok by me.”
Jean had grown up with horses and her husband’s family raises race horses. Over the years her love for horses stayed. In her words, “All little girls love ponies, some of us just never out grow them.” Wayne chimed in, “Girls need their horses and guys gotta have wheels.”
Who are the Buyback Babes and where did they come from? Well the group met by accident and their love of horses has bound them together and expanded their group over the years. In 2001 the ponies not sold at the auction were supposed to be delivered to the fairgrounds corral at 1 p.m. There waiting to see them were a group of women who had no idea what fate had in store for them.
The ponies arrived later than expected, nearly 2:30 according to Jean. During that span of time the women now known as the Buyback Babes began talking and getting to know one another. Ideas flowed and over time as they kept in touch the BBBs came to be.
In 2002 they purchased their first buy back pony, a filly they named Gidget for $7,800. It was the first but it would not be the last or the most expensive. Ponies can generally be bought for around $1,100 if they are going home with the purchaser. Because the fire company’s permit to keep the horses on the refuge on Assateague only allows for 150 ponies, the number of buybacks vary year to year. If they have lost many to age, sickness, or other factors they will keep more.
Many of the members have purchased ponies individually that they have given back as buybacks. Some have taken ponies home with them but as a group they have purchased a total of seven buybacks. Gidget was the first in 2002 followed by Lady in 2003, one of the few solid colored purchases, in 2003 for $3,100. In 2005 came M&M at their lowest purchase price of $1,500 and Freckles in 2006 at $7,500.
Stallions are rarely kept as buy backs due to herd size and other factors. But in 2007 the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the ponies, decided to keep a total of five after losing several stallions to age. Jean says they had always wanted to buy back a stallion and knew instantly that it had to be the creamy colored pinto colt.
Because the number of buy backs is limited and the number of people wanting to purchase them is high the prices are often very much higher than the ponies auctioned off to owners who will take a pony home. The chance to buyback a stallion increases the competition dramatically. The record high bid for a buyback was set in 2001 at $10,500. Jean and her friends would break that record fighting for the creamy colored foal who favored the famous Misty of Chincoteague in 2007. Finally, after it was all said and done, they paid $17,500 for the foal they called Prince. A record they would not even break in 2008, when for the first time they would purchase two buybacks that together cost $17,000.
Jean says it is a love of horses and animals in general that binds this group who accidentally met that day at the corral. They spend each year preparing for the next roundup and Jean says getting to the Island for those who don’t live here is the greatest preparation. Buyback members and friends are scattered from Alexandria, Virginia to Oakland, California and Jasper, Texas to Dayville, Connecticut and everywhere in between. Some are wealthy and some not so much. They started out as 10 and now they are a group of 62.
Of the 62 members 33 have actually contributed financially to the buyback fund and are officially Buyback Babes. They gained two new members in 2008 and so far this year they have one new member. However, Jean says two members are not actually babes but men. When asked what they called them she said with a laugh, “I don’t know.” At which point a suggestion came from around the table to call them Buyback Buddies.
Only two or three of the members live locally; the rest travel from near and far. They stay in vacation rentals, hotels, and campgrounds and some own property in Chincoteague. Some bunk together and some even bunk with those who live here. Some trickle in early and meet for dinner. The real fun begins the weekend before the swim which is the last Wednesday of July each year.
They gather to go and watch the horses rounded up from both southern and northern herds. This is a big event prior to the July swim but they also come up for the fall and spring roundups when the ponies are treated by their long time vet Dr. Charlie Cameron and his staff.
The roundups are not small tasks and take a lot of man power. The Saltwater Cowboys themselves come from several states, pulling their horse trailers. To bring in the southern herd, they spread out over range of the island and run the ponies into a holding area off Woodland Trail.
When they are all gathered at that location they escort the ponies through the woods and into a big corral that sits next to the Beach Road going to Assateague beach. That normally happens in late afternoon. The following morning, bright and early, they are out on the northern end of the island repeating the maneuvers, but covering a much more expansive area. It is four miles out on a service road to the northern corral and no vehicles are allowed, not even bikes. Some of the Buybacks have walked out each year to see “their” ponies, but last year, Lou Hinds, the manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, made a bus available. It will run again this time.
The Buyback Babes also go to watch the northern herd run down the beach to be corralled with the southern herd in what is known locally as “The Beach Run.” It is done very early on Monday morning of swim week and the fog is usually thick along the beach at that hour.
In July, once the ponies are all gathered in the southern corral, the group hangs around to check out previous purchases and chat with old friends about this year’s new additions. This is usually on the Friday and Saturday prior to the swim. The roundup of the northern herd is a long day, even on the bus. They leave early packing food and drinks because they spend six hours out on the refuge with no civilities, not even toilets, before being bused back.
After all the roundups and runs are over and they have seen all the ponies they get together for a big meal on Tuesday prior to the swim, a meal that has become tradition. In the past they have normally gone off the island to a restaurant.
However, this year they are in for a real treat. One of the new members from last year who loves to cook and whose family used to run a catering business came prepared to feed them. On Tuesday July 28 they will all meet at a specified rental house and be served a meal by one of their own. She came in a week early to prepare for the event. She and her husband arrived this week with the bed of their truck loaded down with food and cooking supplies.
After the auction which is held early on Thursday each year following the Wednesday swim, they meet for lasagna at what they call the “Naming Party.” Jean says the way they pick a foal varies. Sometimes one stands out and they know early on which one the group will bid for. Other years it just happens once the auction starts. According to her the naming isn’t much different. The names are not formal. In other words, this is not an official Pony Penning event held by the fire department. It is for their records only.
Jean says they make a list of suggested names then call them out one by one. They remove the obvious dislikes and then vote on what remains until they have a winner. She said some like customary names while others like “funky” names. In the end it is all mutually agreed and yet another buyback is named.
Photographer Kelly Lidard is a member of the group. She is group’s official photographer. Jean’s house is adorned with pictures of the buybacks, many of them no doubt Kelly’s works. Jean knows most of them by the names the Buybacks have given each pony. And each one has its own story. It was clear Jean could spend hours in her room of photos that sit in albums along the book shelves. She has sorted them into years and herds. There are albums for certain ponies and even some very old photos that go back beyond her time on the island; just another testament to her devotion to these majestic animals.
Though the roundups and auctions are main attractions for the group, many come for a chance to see the ponies. Members communicate via email and without it they would not be who and what they are today. Email allows them to communicate from across the country, coordinate trips, find housing, and talk about what is or isn’t happening with one pony or another. It allows them to mobilize and communicate while mobilized.
The love for these animals shines brightly in Jean’s blue eyes. Her love and passion for these wild and beautiful creatures is intoxicating and addictive. If it is matched by the other members of the group by even a minute amount the fun, joy, and merriment in the upcoming 2009 activities will surely be a sight to behold.
Unfortunately this year’s auction will be a bit harder for many. In February one of their dear friends lost her battle with pancreatic cancer and passed away. Her name was Suzanne Craig from Yorktown, Virginia. Jean described her as a wonderful and sweet lady who had a passion for the ponies. Jean, with a loving smile and light laugh, also said she kind of became the leader of the group because, “she was so determined and spirited we just couldn’t tell her no.” Suzanne and Jean both were among the original members who met in 2001. According to Jean she was instrumental in the group’s beginnings and in its continued success.
This year’s buyback will be purchased in honor of Suzanne. When asked if any names had been discussed she said yes but indicated the pony would not carry Suzanne’s name at Suzanne’s request.
The group also has a new venture this year. An organization called the Feather Fund which donates a pony to a needy and deserving child each year will be donating three this year. One of which will be bought with funds donated to the Feather Fund by the Buyback Babes. Jean says it is a new venture they hope to continue supporting each year.
Tammy Rickman is a staff writer for www.wildponytales.info, a website that covers Chincoteague and Assateague. She lives on the Island with her family and teaches special education for Accomack County public schools.