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Two saltwater cowboys hold a wild Chincoteague pony foal in the ring at the wild pony auction _on Chincoteague Island, Va. July 30. The foal, sired by the famous stallion Surfer_Dude, set a record of $25,000 when it was sold as a buyback foal to The Chincoteague Legacy Group. __- Original Credit: Photo courtesy of DSC Photograph
Two saltwater cowboys hold a wild Chincoteague pony foal in the ring at the wild pony auction _on Chincoteague Island, Va. July 30. The foal, sired by the famous stallion Surfer_Dude, set a record of $25,000 when it was sold as a buyback foal to The Chincoteague Legacy Group. __- Original Credit: Photo courtesy of DSC Photograph (HANDOUT)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with Chincoteague ponies — the ponies that roam the Virginia side of Assateague Island, adjacent to the little island of Chincoteague. These wild herds are rounded up at an event called pony penning, held the last full week of July each year.

They are herded up by saltwater cowboys to swim across the bay from Assateague to Chincoteague Island on Wednesday of that week and on that Thursday the foals are sold at auction. Recently, my love of these ponies culminated when I took part in buying a wild pony foal who will remain on the island to run free for all of her days.

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My bond with wild ponies started with the book "Misty of Chincoteague." That book stuck with me like glue. Then, nearly 30 years ago my husband surprised me with a trip to Chincoteague Island just after I'd read the book to our children.

My passion for these ponies was cemented when we were gifted a Chincoteague foal by cancer survivor Carollynn Suplee in 1995 at the wild pony auction on Chincoteague Island. The story of our pony, Sea Feather, became a book. Later I was inspired to join with others to create the Feather Fund to help children purchase ponies of their own in honor of Suplee, who purchased foals for many children.

But this year's pony penning took on a whole new meaning when I became part of the Chincoteague Legacy Group online. It started with a simple post this past spring on the "I Love Chincoteague Ponies" Facebook page. On May 8, Yvonne Shaw, of Moyock, N.C., wrote, "I have always dreamed of purchasing a Chincoteague buyback Pony. I know that I could never do this by myself and I was wondering how many others have the same dream?"

Buyback ponies go back to the island to live forever and continue the herd. Buyback foals are selected by the Chincoteague fire company, who owns the wild herds. They are auctioned off like take-home ponies, but bidders know they will not own them. They are making a contribution to the fire company to help care for the herds and are allowed to name the buyback foal.

There are many theories about how the ponies arrived on this island, but most believe the wild ponies swam to the island from a sinking Spanish galleon in the late 1700s. The fire company took over managing the herds nearly 100 years ago. This year was their 90th pony penning roundup.

So a group was formed and named the "Chincoteague Legacy Group, Friends of the Chincoteague Pony." Soon Shaw had collected $27,267 from more than 400 donors. The group voted to donate any remaining money to the Chincoteague Pony Rescue in Ridgely.

My daughter Shannon Meyers and I sent in donations. So did Sue Billings, of Taneytown, and Terry Thurston, of Manchester. We all wanted to be part owners of a wild pony!

Thurston said she'd been hooked on Chincoteague ponies since visiting the island five years ago during pony penning week.

"When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it in a heartbeat," Thurston said."Being able to be a part of such a wonderful and perfect act makes my heart swell."

Billings said she was quick to donate, too.

"We have spent our anniversary in Chincoteague for the past several years," she said of herself and her husband. "Since then, I have fallen in love with these animals and thought how cool it would be to own one."

As soon as the buyback foals were tagged on Chincoteague July 28, photos of the foals were posted online and a vote was taken on which foal to bid on.

When a tiny black filly with a white blaze and bright blue eyes came into the ring at the July 30 auction there was a stir of excitement. This was the one. She is the daughter of the mare called Got Milk, named for a marking that looks like milk running down her chin. We knew the bidding would go high because she is the daughter of Surfer Dude, a stallion so well known that when he passed this spring news of his death hit the New York Times and USA Today.

His last crop of foals are a precious lot and last year's highest selling foal went for a record-breaking $20,000.

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I was at home in our rented condo, a ball of nervous energy. Because of impending back surgery I was not allowed to attend the auction. I felt lucky to be on the island for Pony Penning week and joyful to have many friends texting me. Those texts came in at the speed of light, with the bidding jumping faster than fingers could fly. Up and up it went until finally, the foal was ours — for a record-breaking $25,000!

"Within minutes of our winning bid, there were over 51 requests to join [the Facebook page 'Chincoteague Legacy Group, Friends of the Chincoteague Pony']," Shaw said.

The group hopes to do it again next year.

I was not surprised at how it all unfolded, but I sure felt blessed. This is a dream come true.

"It was amazing to be part of the love and joy in winning the bid for our filly and in meeting so many pony lovers in person, making lifelong friends," Shaw said.

Shaw summed up just how I feel.

Stay tuned — the group is now voting to name the filly. I will continue the story in part 2.

Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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