The Misty Thing

Editorial Notebook

August 06, 2005|By Karen Hosler

SOME 40,000 spectators crammed onto the tiny island of Chincoteague, Va., last week to celebrate the region's annual rite of summer: the waterborne roundup of wild ponies from nearby Assateague to cull out the new crop of foals.

Only a thousand visitors remained for the next morning's foal auction, but they were the hardcore. Overwhelmingly female, predominantly mothers and little girls, and driven by something coded deep in their DNA to compete in an 80-year-old ritual for the privilege of taking home one of these gangly horse babies.

This wildly successful annual fundraiser for the saltwater cowboys of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company is more than just a chick thing, despite its unabashed appeal to the emotional connection between women and horses.

It's also a kind of cult thing, or as one determined bidder dubbed it, "the Misty Thing": an opportunity to live out the fantasy inspired by Marguerite Henry's 1947 book about Chincoteague's wild ponies and the children who save up to make a precocious gold and white filly their own.

So compelling is this urge, it yielded an average of $2,255 each for the 66 ponies sold, including $8,000 to name a descendant of the real Misty that will remain in the herd. If just a fraction of that longing could somehow be channeled toward the displaced wild horses of the West, Interior Secretary Gail A. Norton might not now be pleading with equine enthusiasts to provide them sanctuary.

Instead, most buyers who made the pilgrimage to Chincoteague knew nothing of the mustangs - slightly larger cousins of the Atlantic coast ponies available much more cheaply at Bureau of Land Management adoption-auctions year round. Worse, those who had heard something of the mustangs typically said it was bad, that horses off the Western range are mean or untrainable.

Horses that mature in the wild are harder to train than those exposed to humans early in life. And the early going of such training can be rough, requiring lots of skill and attention and high fences.

But Chincoteague ponies aren't exactly ready-made riding partners, either. Tiny and terrified, they know nothing of halters and lead ropes and thus must be paraded in front of the auction crowd tightly wrapped in the arms of cowboys intent on preventing them from bucking. Some ponies are so young they must be fed special supplements to replace their mothers' milk. One 7-week-old colt had an eye injury that needed round-the-clock care, and might still result in blindness.

Even so, the Chincoteagues were snapped up at auction as if they were no more trouble than puppies, sometimes impulsively by women who hadn't intended to bid. A fight broke out between two mother-and-daughter pairs over the colt with the bum eye.

Perhaps the magic at work here can best be explained by Jennifer Krempp, 29, of San Diego, whose father read Misty to her when she was 4 and sparked her desire to share her life with horses.

She owned eight of them until last week, including several rescue horses and a mustang named Sadie Hawkins, "because she picked us" at a BLM auction and became "the best horse I ever had."

And yet doing the Misty Thing had been her dream for 25 years. So, this summer, she packed up her husband and 10-year-old daughter, Jannettie, and headed for Chincoteague, where she paid $3,900 for a Misty-colored colt and $2,100 for a red and white filly to keep it company on the long trailer-ride west. "I wanted what I wanted," she said.

Maybe now Sadie Hawkins could do a star turn for the BLM. With a good press agent and some devoted volunteer cowboys, "the Sadie Thing" just might catch on.

- Karen Hosler

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