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
Valley east of
I felt like bundling one into the back of the pickup and taking it home.
Hey, I grew up on
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
off the Virginia-Maryland coast and driven across the small channel of
saltwater to neighboring
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
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
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
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
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.
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
and fresh out of graduate school, and they married in 1968. They lived in
California till his work took them to
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
every day to begin her work, and those ponies get their first of three
daily meals at
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.