By Ritchie Rozzelle
What do we have left that’s wild? The west was wild. Then we spent a couple centuries fencing it in and making it tame (with the possible exception of Hollywood). James Dean was wild. We took his wildness, put it on a big screen and sold it to a generation until that wildness finally got the better of him. Rivers ran wild, but we dammed them and diverted them and bent them to our will. Madonna was wild, but now she’s British.
With so much wildness disappearing around us, it might surprise you to know that high atop Virginia’s tallest mountain peak lives a herd of feral, unbridled ponies. These horses might not have seemed worth mentioning a century ago, but for some reason modern humans have the growing tendency to breed wildness out of the world. We marvel at untamed things like whales, gazelles and Harvey Keitel; we make movies and educational TV shows about them. But it seems like the more attention we give them, the more mundane they become. It’s sort of like that Native American belief that a photograph steals part of your soul – our desire to get close to unbound creatures fences them in. That’s why these wild ponies are so remarkable. We let them stay wild.
These ponies roam free and unhidden along the mile-high ridgeline. And despite the intimidating elevation, anyone can lace up their hiking boots and go see them. Simply head to Grayson Highlands State Park, VA, and strike out on the beautiful and rugged stretch of the Appalachian Trail that approaches Mount Rogers. It’s only a four-mile walk, and if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can find members of this 150-pony herd standing weathered but majestic against their high country backdrop.
These ponies, which are slightly larger than Shetland ponies, have lived up on this area of Wilburn Ridge for longer than most folks can remember. According to Laney Irving, a 74-year-old retired Southern States employee and member of the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, they were put up there by the park service. The ponies, which are aided but not tamed by the club’s eight members, serve the park by grazing on the undergrowth and brush, helping prevent forest fires.
"See, the ponies will go down into the lower wetlands and survive good in the wintertime," says Laney. "That helps to clean the wetlands out and protect the older forests from summer fires. Then in the warmer months they stay up in the higher elevations, where it’s better picking. That helps manage the threat of fire on the mountains’ grassy bald faces."
In exchange for this free labor, the park service and the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association help the herd live healthy and free lives. "In the spring and the fall of the year we round up the ponies and check them over," says Laney. "During the winter we provide them with salt licks and some Southern States feed." Bryan Cassell, Assistant Manager of Southern States’ Wytheville store, says that they’ve been supplying the Pony Association for years.
"They take plenty of our Trace Mineral Salt Blocks and bags of Reliance 10 up there. I even went up once with Laney to see the wild ponies. It was about 10 years ago, but it’s still a fond memory." The Pony Association also provides veterinary assistance to injured ponies and educate hikers to let the herd exist without interference.
"A lot of hikers like to go up to see the ponies and take pictures, and that’s fine," Laney tells us. "But we try to keep them away from feeding the horses. Say you have a pony there and you give him a piece of candy, a piece of cookie, and then go walking off. He might start nipping at your shirttail or something, wanting more to eat. We don’t want them to be dependant on man."
The real thrill is to watch these animals live outside the reach of humans—to help and observe them from afar. "It makes you feel good," admits Laney. "It feels like a good deed to get salt or feed to them, especially when it’s cold and bad up there. Plus, checking on them gives me and my wife a good reason to go walk around the park. We still have a little bit of kid left in us, and seeing those ponies roam free brings that kid out."
It’s true that these ponies bring a childlike sense of wonder to every hiker who has a chance to glimpse them. That is why we’re glad that folks like Laney Irving and the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association offer up their time and Southern States products to protect them. Because there’s something mythical about these small, strong horses standing stalwart against the elements. There’s something inspiring about their thick coats and wispy manes parting in the wind. There’s something in these freely wandering ponies, with wise eyes and old souls that has the ability to make full-grown men think about magic.
Grayson Highlands State Park Pony Auction
Part of caring for wild horses is keeping the herd’s population at a manageable number. To accomplish this, the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association holds an auction at 2:00 PM on the Saturday following the 4th full week in September. The auction is part of the Grayson Highlands Fall Fest. All auctioned ponies have passed veterinary examination and testing, and the proceeds from their purchase goes toward sustaining the pony herd and local charities. For further information call: 276-773-3111 or go to www.graysonfallfestival.org.