By Harley Gooldrup And Elizabeth Fread
This article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of the Eastern Shore News and the October 19 edition of the Chincoteague Beacon. Assateague Island is located on the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the Atlantic Ocean.
It is quiet Friday afternoon, far out on the range, where the famous Chincoteague ponies of the southern herd were lazing around in the afternoon sun. Chewing on their favored cord grass, and swatting the remaining flies with their tails, they were probably unaware that carloads of visitors were pulling over to the side of Beach Road, straining to get a look at them, these mystical ponies of Assateague Island that so many come so far to see.
Suddenly, there is the crack of a bullwhip and riders on horseback are coming at them from all sides. Whatever plans the ponies had for the rest of the day are ruined. It is the October roundup, time for the ponies to visit the doctor for a dose of worm medicine and a check to see if they are fit for the coming harsh winter months.
These ponies of the southern herd are headed toward a large holding pen just off the curve of Beach Road, about a mile from the Atlantic Ocean on Assateague Island. Waiting there as darkness grows near is a small crowd of anxious onlookers, standing around the outside of the corral. They have been there for almost two hours.
Among those waiting are a group of ladies who call themselves The Buyback Babes. Coming from various points on the East Coast, they pool their money each year at the July pony auction and buy a pony that is returned to the herd. They are there to see their ponies, about the only time they can.
Without a sound, the first pony appears through the brush, bringing a hush to the crowd. He stops, takes a cautious look and is soon leading the way for the rest of the herd that comes at a run with the riders who interrupted their afternoon not far behind. The ponies trot along side the pen, through the gate, and mill around, checking out their unaccustomed confinement. There they will spend the night.
Early the next morning, one by one, the mares, foals and their stallions will be driven into a stanchion that restricts their movement while they await an unpleasant intrusion from Dr. Charlie Cameron. He is waiting with a squirt gun of liquid medicine on the end of a 10-inch metal tube that will be inserted into the ponies’ throats.
“The only differences between working with the Chincoteague Ponies and working with domestic ponies is that these ponies are not trained, so their not as disciplined. As far as the health issues they are about the same, but I think the Chincoteague ponies are more hardy and brave. They’re basically survivors, their tough and their dispositions are gentle, that’s why I think they work well as kids’ ponies or horses,” said Dr. Cameron.
Dr. Cameron, employed by the Chincoteague Fire Company that owns the ponies, has been working with these ponies for some 17 years. By the end of Saturday he and his associates will have treated all 150 ponies plus foals that roam the ranges of Assateague Island, first the southern herd, then the much larger northern herd.
Dr. Cameron, who said he was inspired to become a veterinarian by his friend’s father who was also a vet, runs the Eastern Shore Animal Hospital in Painter. Part of his work there is to treat ponies as well as other animals. People will trailer them in, he said, or he will go to the horse owner’s house.
The pen, where he treats the Chincoteague ponies, is divided in half by a fence. This separates the ponies that have been treated from those that haven’t. There is space to move around that keeps the ponies comfortable until Dr. Cameron is ready to give them their worm medicine.
The worm pump is a long metal tool, called a liquid drench. This tool has a larger tube in the middle where the medicine is held until he injects it. He will inject the medicine by pushing a handle into the larger tube holding the medicine, pumping it into the pony’s mouth.
While Dr. Cameron is getting ready, various helpers chase the ponies into the other half of the pen. One by one the ponies are run through a chute, and then into a wooden stanchion that allows for little movement. Once in the stanchion, an assistant to Dr. Cameron will take a wand and wave it around on the left side of the pony’s neck. The wand actually reads a micro chip put in their neck so Dr. Cameron will be able to identify which pony they are working on.
When they find the micro chip, numbers and letters will appear on the screen. Dr. Cameron will then, with the help of an associate, open the pony’s mouth and place the metal tube at the back of the throat where there is a place with no teeth. When the pony has swallowed the medicine the assistant will open the front of the stanchion that leads to the other side of the pen. They will repeat this procedure until every pony has had its medicine.
Dr. Cameron finishes his work on the southern herd by 9:15 a.m. Then it is time to load up and move much further into the wilderness of Assateague to the pen that would later that morning hold the northern herd and three bands of the southern herd that had escaped the cowboys on Friday.
With the southern ponies released back to the wild, the cowboys begin to round up the northern herd, numbering 50 to 60 ponies more than the southern group. They do not bring this group of ponies to the same pen; the northern herd’s pen is located out in an isolated area of the island. The only way to get out there is to walk, unless you are part of the veterinarian’s crew or one of the cowboys. Then it is accessible by vehicle or horseback.
The northern herd is not seen by most of the visitors to the island. Access to these ponies is only by taking one of the charter boats that cruise the shoreline, go out on the tour bus that is operated by the Chincoteague Natural History Association, or you can walk. But this walk is for those with hiking experience, as far as 7 ½ miles out, where in warm weather the flies, mosquitoes and poison ivy are plentiful. And bring along your camping skills. There are no bathrooms.
The northern pen is about four miles out, and the area where the northern ponies roam has a seven mile range. As a result of this, it takes the cowboys much more time to round up the northern herd. The northern ponies also have a sense of what to do when round up time comes, and some bands even start moving before the cowboys round them up.
The Salt Water Cowboys, as they are known, are nearly as famous as the ponies. They come not only from Chincoteague but from nearby communities. The roundups mean early days for these men who begin loading their own horse trailers and moving to their meeting point in darkness.
There are four pathways for the northern ponies to get to the pen; they could come from down the road, along one of the fences, from between the trees, or from cross the water. When all the ponies are in the pen, there will be conflicts, even fighting between the stallions. When they fight they will kick and bite each other for control, they do this so they won’t lose any mares. The stallions make sounds that tell their mares to come to them even if they get mixed up with the other mares.
The northern herd is wilder then the southern herd so it’s harder to give them the medicine. When the cowboys get the ponies into the stanchion and Dr. Cameron tries to open their mouth they will kick the back of the stanchion and try to put their heads out of reach of the assistant’s hands. Not only is it dangerous for the people inside the pen that are helping get the ponies into the chute, but it’s also dangerous for Dr. Cameron and his assistant. If the ponies get really riled up, they will turn around and charge at the people. Dr. Cameron has been bitten and kicked in his years of working with the ponies.
Sometimes when a stallion has been given his medicine and has been moved to the other side, he will stand and wait for his mares to come out. He will count them making sure that each and every one has returned to where they need to be, with him.
The Chincoteague round up is traditionally held three times a year. The cowboys will ride again in April, up bright and early, old friends out on the range taking care of the wild ponies of Assateague.
Harley Gooldrup is a staff writer and Elizabeth Fread is editor in chief of this website www.wildponytales.com. Harley is also an editor of The Nandua News, the Nandua Middle School newspaper. Elizabeth was editor of the paper last year.