It all started with a weekend post, shared on my Facebook page, by someone who knows I am obsessed with Chincoteague Ponies. The post showed a 2-year-old Chincoteague Pony at the Cranbury auction barn in New Jersey, a place known for the meat dealers who descend, always looking for a cheap horse. After snatching them up they are usually sent over the border to a processing plant and later exported as meat to France.
My heart sped up. I stared at the laptop screen. A small, plain chestnut pony gazed back. A creeping feeling told me that I knew who this foal was.
The post said the pony in the photo was a 2-year-old Chincoteague Pony. Did that mean nearly 2? Most island foals are born from spring to summer. Or was this pony almost three? By her size, I guessed nearly 2, so I pulled my 2015 records first.
Like many Chincoteague Pony fans I keep spreadsheets of every foal born on the island with data showing the dam and the probable sire — determined by who the mare was with 11 months before the foal is born, since the gestation period of a horse is 11 months. We also keep notes on when the foal was first spotted to determine the approximate date of birth.
Of the solid chestnuts born wild on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in 2015, my records showed that only three were fillies. The rest were colts — or boys. And of those three only one was unaccounted for. The first one, a sweet little chestnut pony named Sweet Tea is owned by a friend, and the other one, named Gingersnap, was a buyback, which means she will remain on the Refuge for the rest of her life.
If this young Chincoteague Pony was the third one — I swallowed hard, realizing that my feeling was most likely reality — then this little gal would be one of the last foals sired by the legendary stallion Surfer Dude before he passed early in 2015.
In my family's old papers and photographs there is a picture dated Feb. 14, 1899 of a horse without a rider among very large piles of snow at Main Street an
Surfer Dude was surely the most popular pony to leave hoof prints on the sandy soil of Assateague, at least since Misty of Chincoteague had lived there as a foal. The mahogany stallion with a silver mane and tail and one blue eye, one half-blue, carried a gene some call the silver gene, and that gave him a unique coat color. He was also a kind stallion who doted on his mares.
Having just received the cover of my next book, the story of Surfer Dude, my heart was close to him and his legacy. I fought back tears. I stared at the chestnut mare, noticing those same kind eyes, and my doubt washed away. She had to be the missing chestnut from his last crop of foals, Susie's Sweetheart's foal.
I wondered, what this young mare had gone through already, just short of two years? And how did she end up in this horrible place?
Right away, I shared the post to another page — I Love Chincoteague Ponies — on Facebook. I wrote a note to the over 4,000 members, sharing that I believed this could be Susie's Sweetheart's 2015 foal by Surfer Dude. Even if she was actually near 3, she would be from the same breeding because the only solid chestnut foal I couldn't account for in 2014 was from the same breeding.
As soon as it hit the page others began chiming in. Spontaneous fundraising began, with donations sent to a woman who would be at the auction that night. There wasn't enough time and without enough money, the pretty chestnut was purchased by a meat dealer for $650. But there was a catch. There's always a catch.
This meat dealer works hand in hand with Cranbury auction, and sure enough, the mare turned up on their page the next day — held for ransom. This is a game this auction barn frequently plays, preying on the sympathy of pony lovers. The post said $750 was now needed within the next few days, or the pony would go for meat. But that price wasn't even correct. There would be another $100 to $150 in taxes and additional fees.
The I Love Chincoteague Ponies page erupted in disgust, but that outrage fueled a new determination. That's when Missy Cole, from Connecticut, stepped forward. I know Missy because her daughter, Cwen was awarded a Chincoteague Pony foal from our Feather Fund in 2016. Soon folks were donating money again, collected by another friend through PayPal, to save the mare. Save her first, then find a home, that was the goal. Missy had a friend who would quarantine the mare for 30 days, a necessity because auction barns are rife with diseases. Missy vowed to save this pony. And if we couldn't a new home, she'd talk her husband into keeping her.
The outpouring of love that rolled in for this pony was purely beautiful. From small $10 donations to donations over $100, the money came. Soon, enough had been raised to pay the ransom. On Feb. 2, word hit the page that the mare was bought and paid for. The barn wouldn't release her until Feb. 5, just enough time to find a hauler to bring her from New Jersey to Connecticut.
Now settled into her new home, the mare is as sweet as God ever made a pony. That's why Missy and her daughter, Cwen quickly fell in love with her, naming her Surfer's Sweet Pea. But there is still a mystery to be solved, so Debbie Ober from the Chincoteague Pony Rescue has packed up some tail hair from a pony she has who — if Sweet Pea is who we think she is — is a direct sibling. The money raised by a caring community has been enough to pay for hauling, wood shavings for the stall and a little hay to start her off, plus the $50 fee for a DNA test. Missy and Cwen say they hope to keep her, but no matter what the DNA results say, this pony will have a new and loving home.
Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.