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Szymanski: Milestone and foal season converge because 'I'm all about the ponies'

It’s foal season on the National Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. Pictured are JABATTA with her foal.
It’s foal season on the National Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. Pictured are JABATTA with her foal. (DSC Photography)

It’s hard to believe this is my 150th time to write this column. I cannot believe that I’ve sat down 150 times to share my thoughts about living in this Great Big World. I’ve written about every season, nearly every holiday, gardening, family life, miniature horses, history, wildlife, symbiotic relationships, the effects electronic devices have on our lives, marriage, children, animals, kayaking, apple harvests, the paranormal, Chincoteague ponies, history, butterflies, bonfires and summer storms, getting back to basics, fishing rodeos, friendships, and things that worry me today - like bullying, uniting the nation, and the effects of depression. I’ve shared personal stories and poured my heart out to you. It feels like we are friends. So, I wondered, what should I write about in this 150th column?

By now you know me, so I bet you’re not surprised to find that I’m marking this milestone by writing about my favorite place in the world and the wild ponies who live there. One of the reasons is that I get more feedback, shares online and encouraging notes when I write about these ponies. But there’s another reason. It’s foal season on the National Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge!

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As of May 1, there are 20 foals on the ground on the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge it. How do we know that, and most of their genders and the coloring? Because there are reports daily on Facebook from friends on the island.

These friends gather on the “I Love Chincoteague Ponies” Facebook page, each making a report when on the island. But the two most consistent and reliable foal reporters are Darcy and Steve Cole of DSC Photography, and Captain Dan Davis of Captain Dan’s Around the Island Cruises. You can count on an regular reports from one or both, complete with photos of newborn foals.

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During foal season, Darcy has been known to hike over 100 miles a week, lugging along two to five bottles of water, camera equipment, snacks and mosquito repellent. Now that’s dedication! Meanwhile, Captain Dan reports daily from his boat, spotting foals along the coastline while driving the boat for his public tours. Captain Dan knows the ponies well too, often identifying them for passengers. You can’t beat that!

It’s foal season on the National Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. The pony Destiny is shown before foaling.
It’s foal season on the National Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. The pony Destiny is shown before foaling. (DSC Photography)

Darcy hiked 728 miles between January 2019 and when the first foal was spotted on March 22. She was particularly checking Destiny and JABATAA, the two mares she thought would be among the first to foal. Her photos showed both mares looking like they were ready to burst. Then, Catwalk Chaos surprised everyone by foaling first. JABATTA had the third foal of the year and Destiny had the sixth.

Each pony on the island is named by the sponsor who pays for the “buyback” foal at auction. The stories of how they got their names can be fascinating, like Thunderstorm, named because the year she was born was the first year a thunderstorm rolled in while the ponies were swimming the bay, or JABATTA, whose name was created using the initials of each of the buyback sponsor’s grandchildren.

Darcy’s been tracking the foals for five years now, but she said this is the first year she’s wanting to buy one. When the second foal of the season was born — to Danny’s Girl Splash — she fell in love.

“She is the first foal I have actually thought about taking home,” Darcy told me. “But I can’t give up the 150 wild ones and I’d have to give them up if I brought one home.”

The time and energy needed to be a pony owner would definitely take away from Darcy’s daily hikes, kayaking trips and cruises with Captain Dan to check the ponies.

Seeing foal photos online is like visual therapy, but the stories that unfold and are shared within the pony community are also wonderful. One foal story that stands out is the tale of Dunkaroo, a newborn filly, discovered in the water by Captain Dan and his passengers a few years back. The filly was hanging on by just her head resting on the shoreline. The mare, Gidget, must have stretched out to foal by the water’s edge. Her newborn had plopped into the water at birth. Then, the herd moved on without them. There Gidget stood, helplessly watching her foal struggle to stay afloat.

“There are 10,000 veterans in Carroll County,” he told the crowd. “There are 371,620 veterans in Maryland. Of them, only 151,000 access the VA system."

While Captain Dan alerted the Chincoteague Fire Company, two experienced pony people onboard jumped into the bay and swam to lift the foal to shore. Another passenger threw her sweater out to rub the foal dry. Surely, they had saved this filly’s life. Purchased at Pony Penning by Erica Degele, the young mare named Lily has already been shown in hand at the famous Devon horse show, continuing to thrive and to bring joy.

Amazing stories always seem to roll out in foal season. Years ago, my sweet friend, Sara fell in love with a buyback foal and that led her to become a buyback “owner.” The foal, Sweet Jane, was nicknamed Duckie. She grew into a beautiful mare, but because she was part of the northern herd, Sara seldom saw her. Then, three years ago, while out with Captain Dan, she saw Duckie with her two-day-old foal, and fell in love again.

“Everyone else on the boat was so sweet about letting us hang and watch them for a while,” she recalled of that day.

Duckie’s foal was purchased at roundup by the wrong owner and ended up being one in a lot of starving ponies rescued out of Thurmont by Days End Farm Horse Rescue. Sara loved the foal enough to drive to visit her several times during the long and tedious recovery period. Now, she’s been adopted out to a wonderful family who named her Pearl. I’m hoping to take Sara to visit her soon.

Each year another story unfolds, with the saltwater cowboys often playing a heroic part in the story. Then there’s Darcy and Steve and Captain Dan and so many others who make regular pony reports. Recently, Darcy said, between what she sees from the trail and he sees from the water, there are days when they’re able to account for 100% of the northern herd.

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If you haven’t visited the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, now is a great time to check it out. Birders flock there for the waterfowl. There’s marine life, hiking and biking trails, places to kayak, tours and the best seafood ever, but for me, it’s all about the ponies.

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