Chincoteague Pony Rescue: Local Woman Rescues One Pony at a Time

There will be an Open House at Hawk Eye Stables, 12159 Ober Lane in Ridgely, on December 1 from Noon to 9 p.m. Wear an ugly sweater to win a prize.

Originally printed in September 2013.

Finding your life’s true calling in your 50s is a common theme among today’s Baby Boomers. This was certainly the case for 53-year old Debbie Roys-Ober, of Ridgley. Debbie, who was raised with horses, recalls as a child falling in love with Marguerite Henry's book, Misty of Chincoteague, written in 1947 about the Chincoteague Pony Swim.


Although over the years, Debbie had accumulated 12 horses of her own, it was not until 2000 that she acted on her love affair with the Chincoteague ponies. That year, for her 40th birthday, she attended the Chincoteague Pony Swim and bought herself her first Chincoteague pony, Pony Girl. As of this year, Debbie has rescued 36 Chincoteague ponies and has adopted out 25 ponies as part of her new endeavor, Chincoteague Pony Rescue.


Debbie recalls, “In 1998 when I attended my first Chincoteague Pony Swim, I cried when I saw the ponies swim for the first time. After reading the book as a child, I had thought about the ponies for 20 years. It was magical actually seeing them. I couldn’t get the ponies out of my mind.”


Debbie Roys-Ober, of Chincoteague Pony Rescue, Inc., with her Chincoteague Pony, Tornado.


In 1999, because of the failing economy, Debbie heard about horses that were being abandoned or sold because their owners were no longer able to care for them. It was that year that she rescued her first Chincoteague Pony, igniting her passion to care for this unique breed of horses. The Chincoteague Pony became an official registered breed in 1994. The average height of the pony is between 13 and 13.3 hands with a few exceptions to 15 hands. Because most of the ponies stand less than 14 hands, it is considered a pony. Chincoteague Ponies are known to be stocky, with short legs, thick manes and large, round bellies. They also have unique coat patterns, depending on their Arabian and Mustang heritages. Legend has it that the ponies descended from survivors of wrecked Spanish galleons off the Virginia coast, but most people believe that the ponies came from stock released on the island by 17th century colonists looking to escape livestock laws and taxes on the mainland.


Two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Each year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC) purchases a grazing permit from the National Fish & Wildlife Service, allowing the Fire Company to maintain a herd of about 150 adult ponies on Assateague Island.


The CVFC controls the herd size with a pony auction on the last Thursday in July. Each year, tens of thousands of spectators come to watch the Saltwater Cowboys swim the pony herd across the narrowest part of Assateague Channel at low tide to Chincoteague Island. After the swim they are examined by veterinarians and rested before they are herded through town to a corral at the Carnival Grounds where they stay until the next day's auction. The Pony Auction not only provides a source of revenue for the fire company, but it also serves to trim the herd's numbers. To retain the permit to graze on the refuge, the herd must not exceed 150 ponies.


During the 2008 Annual Chincoteague Pony Penning, two stallions of the herd were found seriously injured with life threatening wounds due to a struggle of dominance with younger stallions while on Assateague Island. Both stallions were about 20 years old, had spent their entire lives on the island, and had sired many foals there over the years. The CVFC decided that both stallions could not return to the island and must be retired. In 2007, one of the stallions, “Tornado,” had sired the highest selling foal at an auction, which sold for $17,500. In 2008, after watching Tornado for 10 years at Chincoteague, the CVFC retired him in Debbie’s care and brought him home to Hawkeye Stables.


By 2011, between jobs and dissatisfied with her employment options, Debbie was reading a book, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood, by Marsha Sinetar. She finally realized her real passion was to start a rescue organization devoted to the Chincoteague Ponies, which would be based at her 30-acre farm, Hawkeye Stables, near Ridgley. Chincoteague Pony Rescue, Inc. was founded by Debbie and supported by many other friends she had met at Chincoteague. A few in the group were called the “Buy Back Babes,” because they had pooled their money each year to participate in the Chincoteague Pony Auction’s “Buy Back” program. One of the Buy Back Babes, who became the organization’s first board member, and others from their locations in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and California, include Debbie, Debbie Elliott-Fisk, Barbara Steele, Michelle Zeigler and Karen Peck. Each year, the Chincoteague Fire Company designates a few ponies as "Buy Backs." A Buy Back Pony is a foal that is designated by the Fire Company to return to Assateague Island to live out its life there. The Buy Back Pony is auctioned with the rest of the foals. The winner of a Buy Back Pony will get to name the Pony before it is returned to Assateague. Buy Back Ponies, which replenish the herd on Assateague, have actually become some of the highest priced ponies sold at the auction.


Debbie comments about Chincoteague Pony Rescue, stating, “We want to establish a safe environment for neglected, abandoned and abused Chincoteague Ponies. We are committed to saving them from the auction houses in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. Many ponies have been taken there to be sold by their owners, who could not afford to keep them due to job loss, relocation, or because their children lost interest in them or outgrew them.”


Debbie and her board members spend hours checking auctions on the Internet to make sure Chincoteague ponies don’t go to slaughter. They have been creating a database of Chincoteague ponies for the last few years, using both photographs and written records. Through Facebook, Craigslist and auction listings, the group follows any ponies that have the markings or confirmation of Chincoteague Ponies. When they determine a pony is a Chincoteague Pony that may be going to an auction house or sale barn, they try and find a buyer or the Rescue purchases the pony before it can be killed at a slaughter house. Anyone with a Chincoteague Pony can register the pony on Chincoteague Pony Rescue’s Registry by paying $35. Because the CVFC has discontinued their pony registry in August 2012, it is important for Chincoteague Pony owners to register their ponies to keep documentation on the bloodline.


Emma, a descendant of “Misty of Chincoteague,” is a recent rescue made by Chincoteague Pony Rescue in Ridgley.


Debbie comments, “We believe that the Chincoteague Ponies are a huge part of the history of the islands. We want to preserve the information on the bloodlines for future generations.” She adds, “We have been watching the economy and the ponies now for over 15 years and believe that the rescues we are doing today are just the tip of the iceberg. We ask Chincoteague Pony owners to call Chincoteague Pony Rescue first before selling their ponies to anyone. We can put them in touch with a potential buyer who shares our mission and to insure that the pony does not end up at slaughter.”


The average cost for a Chincoteague Pony adoption is $600, which includes the pony’s vaccinations, worming, hoof care and training. Some ponies come in depressed, sick, unhandled and wild. Debbie states that the ponies are sometimes known for their so-called “wild side,” coming from unhandled stock. She confirms, however, that the ponies are easy to train, very personable, inquisitive and people-oriented animals. The boys are gelded before they leave the rescue and all of the horses are trained in groundwork or started under saddle if over the age of three. The organization also spends time educating the general public, as well as adoptive owners, on the care and maintenance required for these ponies.


The average cost of caring for each pony that is rescued is about $1,800 a year. Other expenses include building shelters, fencing, pastures and printed materials. Debbie has completely depleted her savings and 401K Fund for her retirement in caring for the ponies and relies on donations from businesses and others to keep the rescue operation going. Her eBay business selling used books and collectibles also funds the group’s efforts. Chincoteague Pony Rescue hopes to start a membership program this year to help raise the additional funds needed to make the program sustainable.


In addition to offering ponies for adoption, Chincoteague Pony Rescue also offers a “Pony Pal” program for anyone who wants to sponsor a Chincoteague Pony which has been rescued by the group. The cost is $25 and sponsors receive a Chincoteague Pony Rescue decal, an 8 inch by 10 inch photograph of the pony they are sponsoring and a certificate of sponsorship. This is a great gift for holidays and birthdays. For $35, sponsors also get a CPR T-shirt with its logo. It is one way people can support the organization’s mission.


Debbie states that she does not know how they get it all done and rely on faith to accomplish their mission. She quips, “The ponies that need to be here, get here somehow, and then the people that are supposed to adopt them come forward. At the end of the day, somehow it all works.”


Debbie’s husband, Tom Ober, is a tremendous support to the organization, helping with sponsorships and transportation. Other support comes from our many corporate sponsors and private donations. She adds, however, that the organization is always looking for volunteers to help with day-to-day operations.


In reflecting on the last two years of operating a rescue organization and its success in placing the ponies, Debbie, adds, “When I die, I need to know that I made a difference.”


For further information, visit Chincoteague Pony Rescue at ChincoteaguePonyRescue.org or visit them on Facebook. Interested persons can also call 410-829-3026 or email hawkeye@goeaston.net.