Editor’s note: This is the final of four stories exploring the challenges of managing wild horses in the West and the cost of doing nothing.
CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — There are thousands of people crowded along the coastline of the tiny East Coast island of Chincoteague, which sits just a few miles from the mainland.
A couple of girls are perched in trees and others are sinking in the mud and muck. Fans are standing or sitting in boats anchored in the water, paying good money to get a close-up look at the 94-year-old swim tradition of Pony Penning, when some of the wild ponies and foals of neighboring Assateague Island navigate through the water for a couple hundred yards for a parade down the streets of town and an eventual auction at a carnival.
Pony Penning was forever memorialized in a popular children’s novel written in 1947, “Misty of Chincoteague,” by Marguerite Henry. If you know the story, you know Misty, and you can see the stuffed horse in a museum, and watch the subsequent movie for free at the local theater all week. Her hoofprints are in front of the theater, stamped in concrete, and a statue of her graces the main street.
There’s pony wine, and in stores, cakes are decorated with ponies. Pony shirts are everywhere.
“This week it is all about the ponies,” said Evelyn Shotwell, executive director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce.
Could some Utah mustang ever become so beloved? Could a community like Delta — home to a Bureau of Land Management wild horse facility — or Stockton out in the western desert of Tooele County — boasting the splashy so-called Hollywood herd of Onaqui horses — ever get that hyped up over a mustang?
“Um, no,” said the Utah BLM’s Lisa Reid, the public affairs specialist for the federal agency’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. “It’s not like that out here.”
The federal handlers of Utah’s wild horse program and rural leaders insist that to detail the situation of the Chincoteague ponies in the same breath as mustangs and burros in the West is a comparison that shouldn’t even be muttered.
“It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s pine nuts and watermelon, and we are the pine nuts,” said Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson, a rancher who has tried to help the wild horses but wants their numbers drastically reduced.
There’s no water in Tooele County for a swim, there’s thousands of horses scattered across the state in remote, rugged areas, and if there are people who come out to watch a gather, it is typically a smattering of media, documentary filmmakers, BLM critics who hate the gathers, or a few mustang fans.
But in Chincoteague, those thousands of people who swarm to be part of Pony Penning are often crossing one more item off their bucket list.
For those who can’t get close enough to see the swim, there’s a Jumbotron in a park and an aerial photographer to video the event.
On the dock, on this July morning, Denise Bowden is whipping up the crowd, speaking into a microphone.
“We do this because we love it. Some of us wouldn’t be anywhere else in the whole wide world, including me,” said Bowden. She is the public information officer for Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which manages this herd as its main source of revenue.
Lil Nas X, a country rapper joined by Billy Ray Cyrus, plays over the speakers and begins singing about taking his horse down “Old Town Road,” and people young and old start to dance.
The crowd can see the ponies waiting on the other island. When the winds die down and slack tide hits, the ponies are moved into the channel. Some people have been here more than seven hours waiting to see the celebrated tradition of Pony Penning.
“I’ve been a Misty fan since I was a little girl,” said Kristen Lee, waiting with the thousands of others. “This is a dream come true for me. This is only done once a year, it is only done here, it isn’t done anywhere else in the world. You are in a special place.”
Bowden is scanning the horizon and then the moment comes. Crews in U.S. Coast Guard boats shoot off a red flare.
“I see ponies,” Bowden shouts, and the cheers erupt. “What a beautiful sight that is.”
Their heads are bobbing in the water, the foals tracking the journey next to their mothers’ sides, and soon they are scrambling into the marsh, shaking off the water amid neighs and squeals.
The first foal to make it to shore is dubbed either King Neptune or Queen Neptune, depending on its gender. This year it is a queen, and volunteer John Wayne and another man hustle to capture it, wrestling with the filly multiple times because she’s not partial to the idea. It has to be caught immediately, so it can be marked and raffled off for free to whoever bought the winning chance. This year, the fire department sold $7,500 worth of chances, at a dollar a piece.
“That foal was an escape artist,” Wayne admitted later, grinning a bit over the slippery filly eluding them several times.
He’s been doing this for 34 years and started when he was 6. He had his own Chincoteague pony as a boy and broke it himself. Even though he now lives in Florida, he’s here for the week of events as a volunteer.
“There’s only one place you can see it. It’s beautiful. The land, the sky, the water, the ponies. It is majestic. It is something special. I am just blessed to be part of it.”
This year, 110 ponies made the swim, guided by boats with veterinarians on board and monitored by the volunteer Saltwater Cowboys. It took 3.54 minutes from shore to shore.
“This is the best of America, right here. In a world where traditions and legacy are being tossed aside, Chincoteague is not surrounded by the internet age. Chincoteague is still Chincoteague,” said Jeff Hulbert, who earlier in the week carried the U.S. flag along the beach walk of the ponies.
Unlike the majority of wild horse and burro herds in the West, the Chincoteague herd is quite small and contained in a small geographic area. They’re habituated to people and used to the traditional swim.
With a wink and smile, the fire department’s treasurer and a volunteer member for 40 years said the ponies did the swim on their own once, before the actual Pony Penning celebration.
“They know they have good food waiting over here,” said Billy Joe Tarr.
The ponies are monitored constantly by the fire department, their fans who follow them on social media and Darcy Cole, a professional photographer.
“Each of them is like a kid to me,” Cole said, describing how she hiked 1,600 miles this year to document them with photos.
“It’s like hunting, but with a camera. It is a mystery of who you are going to find on any particular day. It never gets boring,” she said. “It’s like baseball enthusiasts, people who collect baseball cards and know everything about a player. Or football fans. Pony Penning is our Super Bowl.”
Cole said she contracted “pony fever” in 2013 and through her photography, takes fans on virtual field trips to acquaint them with the herd.
“The thing we like to do is have people feel like they are out here when they cannot be. And once people feel like they have a name, it brings a whole new level of interest.”
Wild horses in the West gathered by the BLM don’t officially have names. They are identified at auction by a tag with a number, and a freeze brand on their neck.
Mustang critics say they are not indigenous to this country, but Chincoteaguer Chelsie Kenlon says the same is true for the Assateague ponies.
Kenlon said the trick to stimulating interest in wild horses in the West is to market them and manage them. She said adoption is a dirty word because it scares away potential owners and people need to feel invested.
“People don’t understand. You also have to start from scratch, start with just the babies, the foals. Try to find a way to figure out who benefits, who does it affect?” she said. “Don’t use helicopters or machines.”
At auction, the “charity” Chincoteague pony generated a winning bid of $16,000 for the local United Way.
Ten of the foals were “buybacks” to stay on the island to keep the herd population stabilized.
A Misty descendant, bid on by the Chincoteague legacy group, went for $15,000 to stay on the island.
Jessica Stewart bought a 6-week-old black foal for $10,000 and waited until October for a fall pickup.
* * *
In Utah, participants in the BLM and 4-H Youth Mustang Challenge spent 100 days working with wild yearling mustangs.
They school the horses on loading and unloading into a trailer, demonstrate they can pick up their feet for handling, train them to walk over tarps, over tires, to walk aside a cap gun going off or to lay down and be still on command.
Branson Burnhope, 16, led his yearling, Mississippi, into the arena at the Utah State Fairpark on a dirt bike and later cracked a bull whip at its side.
Potential bidders watched the September challenge, and half the horses were adopted, while the other half went home with their trainers. Two horses went for $150, just $25 above the starting bid.
“It was really disappointing,” Reid said.
It’s not that the program isn’t successful at uniting horses with willing adopters.
The BLM has a multimillion-dollar contract with the American Mustang Heritage Foundation to certify handlers through the Trainer Incentive Program, or TIP, for gentling horses so they are more adoptable.
Since October of last year, nearly 2,500 horses went through the program and across the country, there are 477 approved trainers who get $1,000 for each horse they complete.
Although BLM horses occupy 10 Western states, the foundation’s program and events director Lizzy Foster said trainers are geographically split throughout the East and West.
“We have seen continued growth and interest year after year,” Foster said.
Chelsea Gammon Bowen, who lives in Pennsylvania, is a certified trainer in the program and in love with mustangs.
She adopted “Folly” from a BLM online auction on a whim, even though the horse had languished in a holding pen for four years in Nevada.
Bowen’s never looked back, and came to Utah last year, picking up 14 mustangs for willing adopters. She took three for herself, and is spreading the promotion of the mustang through her Facebook page,
“There is just something about them that I had never felt in all my life working with horses until I started working with my first mustang,” she said. “It awakens something inside of you.”
She considers herself a mustang ambassador, and has eight of her own and is developing a sanctuary.
Bowen knows the BLM is strapped for resources, but believes the agency could step up East Coast interest by adding more adoption centers.
The closest facility to her is in Illinois and a 14-hour drive, one way.
Adopting online is a chance some just aren’t willing to take, so more satellite facilities where a person could personally eyeball the horse would help, she said.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation also partners with the BLM on the Extreme Mustang Makeover to demonstrate the adoptability of the horses, placing more than 4,000 animals since it began 12 years ago.
Mustang management is a challenge overall for the federal government, but there are places where wild horses and communities have carved out enough public interest — similar to that of the Chincoteague ponies — to forge success stories.
An Idaho love story
In Idaho, Andrea Maki founded the Wild Love Preserve to take in horses from the Challis herd management area after a gather in 2012 and now works with the BLM on all of its six herd management areas. She leases 400 acres from a longtime rancher and has been able to cobble together an agreement with the government officials, the community, neighbors and has a team of volunteers.
“We mirror what happens on the range. We work on the range and have been able to show the BLM, the ranchers and the community that this system works and how we have been able to succeed.”
There are no adoptions, and the horses roam those acres in a natural environment. When the foals were born from the 2012 mares already pregnant, Maki implemented a fertility control program that keeps the young studs from being gelded but enables her to manage the population.
“We are giving them an opportunity to be who they are without us two-legged folks interfering.”
It hasn’t been easy.
“I was knocking on doors introducing myself, asking different people to share their perspective. It cannot be black or white or you get the door slammed in your face.”
She said some of the locals think she is that “wild horse girl” running around, but she’s been able to gain trust.
“I am really bent on truth and integrity and follow through, being kind and respectful,” she said. “Those things you learn in kindergarten matter. We don’t litigate. We work in real time through open conversations and communications, even though they are challenging.”
The preserve is home tor 136 horses, and since its inception, Maki said not a single Challis horse has left Idaho.
Her big success, she said, was inspiring two people who had restraining orders against each other to go out together on ATVs to dart horses for fertility control on two bands of wild horses on BLM land.
Since the implementation of her program, the BLM has not had to do a gather of the Challis herd management area, although one is planned later this year.
“Those two bands are completely in check. ... That speaks to being kind and listening to different stakeholders in the BLM and not having fights and being overly dramatic.”
Maki’s other success? She’s been able to save the BLM, and hence U.S. taxpayers, $7.5 million by taking and keeping the horses on her preserve.
“We are able to offer an alternative that is of great taxpayer savings as well as bring revenue to the community.”
Her goal is to raise $1 million to secure a land acquisition for a permanently protected wildlife preserve and to make a home for more horses from BLM gathers.
One of her supporters is the Vitalogy Foundation, a public nonprofit founded by members of Pearl Jam. Maki knows Pearl Jam member Stone Gossard from her days in Washington state, friends since she was 14 years old.
“Those guys in general have been so wonderful; Stoney has been key. He is very much engaged in our campaign to raise money for getting the land.”
Although the preserve has raised just $50,000, Maki said she is not giving up. With the pending roundup of more horses, she’s preparing to make room for those not adopted.
“I can’t be deterred because it doesn’t help. I can’t go down that path,” she said. “The job needs to get done.”
High-tech horses and political pressure
Nevada’s Virginia Range horses are being darted for fertility control through a cooperative agreement forged between the American Wild Horse Campaign, its coalition partners and the Nevada Department of Agriculture earlier this year.
The agreement was stoked by public outcry, political pressure on the Nevada governor and the critical buy-in of the high tech corporate world.
The roughly 3,000 horses are not protected under federal law because they occupy a range on private land. Blockchains owns about 70% of the complex on the land.
“They have been a strong advocate for us,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, noting the support has come not only through dollars but the corporation’s field operations manager being actively engaged in planning for rescue, water development and darting.
“All the companies in that park are very environmentally minded. They like the horses, they participate.”
When someone saw a group of horses in horrible condition standing around a dried up spring on Blockchains’ property, the campaign texted a company official who said they were already hauling water to the horses.
“Blockchains staff and employees throughout the park often express joy in seeing the wild horses graze nearby. The mustangs are a natural extension of our community,” the company said in a statement. “Without a long-term plan to manage them, however, these wild horses and the rangelands they inhabit remain vulnerable.”
This year’s agreement with Nevada state came after the campaign and public sent 40,000 faxes to the governor in just two days, Roy said.
“Local people were up in arms” over the prospect the state would start rounding them up to ship them to slaughter, Roy said.
The range is in the Reno area, which Roy said is an extremely wild horse friendly community, with statues, art and depictions of running wild horses along the interstates and overpasses.
Using a team of 14 darters, mostly volunteers, the program has delivered 903 fertility control treatments to mares as of late September, more than the BLM did across 10 states in single year.
Roy said she believes their efforts can control the population, which also is prey to cougars or coyotes in the area.
“We would like to dart 80% of the reproductive mares out there and you can very quickly get to zero population growth,” she said.
The success in this program is amplified by the irony that the American Wild Horse Campaign didn’t have to file a lawsuit to force action by the state, even though it has a successful track record in the courts. The trigger, Roy said, was community, political and corporate support.
Finding a middle ground
That type of support also galvanized action in Arizona for the Salt River herd of wild horses. The horses are on Forest Service land and migrate to an adjacent Native American reservation at times. When the Forest Service threatened “impound and removal,” for sale at public auction in 2015, Simone Netherlands and her supporters spirited an aggressive campaign to save them.
They filed a lawsuit, held rallies and flooded media outlets with more than 6,000 press releases. Their coalition partner, American Wild Horse Campaign, was part of the effort to engage the public.
The nonprofit Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, which Netherlands founded, forged an agreement with the Arizona Department of Agriculture to manage the herd and received approval to administer fertility control on a short-term basis.
Netherlands said they have asked for a long-term management plan over a five- to 10-year period, a request that is pending.
“We need to prove that this works. The rest of the country is looking to us to see if this is working out,” she said. “There are still people who want to see us fail, they would love to see us fail, then the roundups can continue.”
As with any herd of wild horses, the Salt River animals die due to a variety of reasons, which causes some controversy. They get tangled up in barbed wire or are hit by cars. Mares die and leave orphaned babies.
“We rescue when possible and euthanize when needed,” she said.
The group developed a cellphone app that documents every horse, and every time it is administered fertility control.
A team of 130 volunteers are engaged in the program, and on its website, people can learn the names of the horses, their history, buy a calendar, and donate.
There are no ranching allotments on the Forest Service land, which Netherlands said helped their cause.
“There are wild horse organizations that are on the extreme left and extreme right and we are exactly in the middle,” she said. “On the national issue of management, we believe we should work with ranchers because ranchers know their allotments. There are a lot of ranchers that would love be compensated to (dart) horses. The only reason ranchers resent wild horses is that it affects their bottom line when they have to remove their cattle. They are going to stand up for their way of living, but if there was something in it for them it might work.”
She added that being in the “middle” position is the only way to solve the national challenge of wild horse and burro management.
“There are solutions that make the public happy and make authorities happy and most of all keep the horses happy. People need to look to those solutions, instead of continuing this war into the future, and reach middle ground.”
So what is middle ground?
The answers vary, depending on who you ask.
These are just a few examples of where there are thousands of people coming together to reach a solution for wild horse and burro management. The examples have their own problems, but it represents effort, dedication and sacrifice.
Their actions are trying to stop a polarizing problem from metastasizing even further until there is no hope, like a cancer patient in stage four.
The groups are trying to make it work amid everything else in their life: paying bills, raising families, managing households.
But as one expert pointed out, this isn’t just a problem for those in the horse world, it is society’s problem.
What is society doing?