The Feather Fund: Helping Kids Achieve Their Pony Dreams

March 1st, 2013 7:48 AM | 11 Comments

By Gabrielle Sasse,

Bachelor stallions Chief and Riptide graze on the south end of Assateague Island. Photos courtesy of Lois Szymanski

Black Beauty, National Velvet, Trigger… these famous horses drove kids everywhere to beg their parents for a pony. But it was Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague who brought light to the ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague islands, and the infamous pony swim and auction run by the firefighters of Chincoteague annually. Kids could actually go to Chincoteague and buy their own pony! The Feather Fund is working to help bring a Chincoteague pony to a deserving young kid each year, inspired by the work of Carollynn Suplee.

If you haven’t heard about the pony swim, or your Misty memory is a little, well, misty, here is a brief review from “The purpose of the pony swim is to move the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island so that the foals can be auctioned. The auction serves two purposes: as a way to control the overall size of the herd, because to retain the grazing permit on the Wildlife Refuge, the herd cannot exceed 150 horses. Secondly, the auction is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.”

The weekend prior to the Pony Swim, “Saltwater Cowboys” on horseback will begin to round up the approximately 150 wild ponies that live on Assateague Island. About 50 ponies reside on the southern end of Assateague Island, and will be herded into a southern corral. About 100 ponies reside a little further north on the Assateague Island, and will be herded into a northern corral.

A few days later, Saltwater Cowboys swim the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. The swim takes place at slack tide, the ponies swimming the Assateague Channel, just south of Memorial Park.

Each year the Fire Company designates a few ponies (usually between 3 to 5) 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, to help replenish the herd. The Buy Back Pony will be auctioned with the rest of the foals, with the winner naming the Pony before it is returned to Assateague. Buy Back Ponies have actually become some of the highest priced ponies sold at the auction. “

The firemen do a great job taking care of the ponies: they get vet care and hoof care in spring and fall, and they check on the foals in the spring. It is said that they are the “best managed herd of wild horses in America.” Firefighters drop hay in the winter when not enough hay, and there has never been foal drowning in the history of the roundup. The horses will even swim across on their own to steal crops and swim back!

The Feather Fund is a non-profit organization spearheaded by Lois Szymanski, who began it with Ed Suplee through the Ed and I started it with the Community Foundation, and is run by a board of volunteers. Ed and Lois  started after the generous work of Carollynn and Ed Suplee. In 1995, Lois, her husband Dan and their two young daughters, traveled to the auction. Their daughter Ashley was singing at the Misty Museum, and the girls had saved $500 in their pockets for a pony, determined to bring one home. Lois and Dan weren’t able to supplement the kids’ pony fund, but they let them bid anyway. Forty ponies went by, and the girls were starting to get discouraged.

Fireman David Savage, whom the Szymanski family had helped early by donating a microphone and amp, brought over an older couple. Carollynn and Ed Suplee had planned to purchase a Buy Back pony, but they were all auctioned off already. The couple insisted on buying the Szymanski girls a pony instead! Lois and Dan protested, until Carrollynn shared her story. “I had cancer, a brain tumor. I didn’t think I would live through surgery. But God sent me a sign that I would be okay. During those weeks before surgery, I started finding feathers. Everywhere I went I found feathers, even in odd places.” She found Psalm 91:

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

And then knew she would be ok. Carrollynn wanted to give back, just as she was given her life back.  “When Mr. Savage pointed you out, I looked over and a seagull feather drifted down in front of me. Then I saw your daughter’s shirt, and I knew. I am supposed to do this.” I looked at Shannon’s shirt. It was an Indian design, with feathers on the front.”

Sea Feather

The whole crowd got involved, chanting at the Szymanskis to buy the pony. The couple relented, and before they knew it they had purchased, with the help of the Suplees, pony #42, a tiny brown foal with four socks. Ashley named their pony Sea Feather, and to everyone’s surprise the foal had a white spot in the shape of a jagged feather on his neck.

Carrollynn and Ed continued their work for many years after that, buying ponies for children that Carrollynn felt directed to. If they didn’t find a child in need, they would purchase a Buy Back for the herd. Sadly, Carrollynn’s cancer came back in March of 2003. She passed away in October of that year, after purchasing one last pony for Alissa Swenson, a girl who she had met the previous year.

Ed and Lois had convinced Carrollynn to start The Feather Fund, a nonprofit organization to carry on her work. She was pleased with the idea.  Lois recants, “My daughter was the very first person Carrollynn gave a pony to. Just incredible… ever since 1995, each year she survived, she would buy a pony.  It was pretty amazing, because after Carrollynn passed, she didn’t want to glorify her name with the fund.”

They joined forces with the Community Foundation of Carroll County and in 2004 The Feather Fund gave away their first pony. Their mission is the goal of helping each child learn about responsibility, care, love, work ethic, as well as the concept of “giving back to others” through the care and training of his or her animal. Additionally, the fund may provide financial support to related causes as determined by the advisory committee.

“That first year, we had just gotten our non-profit status and we didn’t have an application procedure. We just asked for direction from above, and wanted to find a kid. Halfway/three quarters through the auction, my daughter (now an adult) came back and said a little girl was sitting watching and bidding, but kept dropping out of the bid. She had feathers in her ponytail.  They had driven all the way from Oklahoma, and during the drive, she read [her family] this book called Sea Feather.” Sea Feather is the book written by Lois, describing their wonderful journey of their new pony. “Our whole family was very emotional, and we believed Carrollynn sent us the girl. Since then, we have given over 20 ponies and we know where every one is.”

Kirchner Family, 1996 pony recipient from Carrollynn

Lois continues how the Feather Fund has unfolded. “It’s interesting to see how it turns out every year. We usually try to do two ponies, and there are always three or four kids who we want to give to. We try to encourage them to re-apply if they don’t make it, since we can’t get them all. Molly, who won last year, was on her fourth year applying, and her mom was just diagnosed with cancer that year. The ponies seem to come to kids when they need it most. One story after another where these ponies make such a difference… it’s amazing.”

This article will be continued in “Part 2: The Feather Fund.”  Watch for it on in the coming days…

11 Responses to “The Feather Fund: Helping Kids Achieve Their Pony Dreams”

  1. A very slanted article regarding the mgmt. of the herds by the fire co. Did you see the starving ponies (at least 6-8) that were in the corrals last summer at the swim? They got nothing extra but to be trucked back out to the refuge after their foals were sold.
    Except for a few facts, this article is nothing but fluff. Kids get too big for most of these ponies, and then they end up in rescue~

  2. Not a single Feather Fund pony will ever go to rescue. The Feather Fund keeps track of them and knows where every ony is. If a Feather Fund child outgrows their pony they are required to offer it back to the Fund to place in a new home. Two ponies have been returned and have been placed in new homes, so the person who commented does not have the facts.

    Very few Chincoteague Ponies end up in rescue anyway, because almost all of them top out at 13 to 15 hands, big enough for an adult to ride. They are personable, smart and easy-keepers. Compared to the rest of the nation’s horses, these are more likely to stay in good homes.

  3. As far as the thin ponies in the pens; When ponies get old they do not retain nutrition and they get thin. This is the way of life and this is what happened to my own mother in the end. There are two schools of thought. The first is to remove the ponies from the island, from everything they have ever known and loved so that they can live a few more years in captivity. The second is to allow them to live a natural life and die a natural death on their home island with their herdmates.

    The fire dept gives vet care at three annual roundups and those thin mares were given nutrition via tube. They are reaching the end of their stay on earth. That is the cycle of life.

    There will always be people who disagree but the care of these equines far surpasses the care of the Mustang.

  4. The Feather Fund has been helping kids long before the organization was formed. The kids that had ponies purchased for them back in the mid 90s STILL have their ponies and they are still being ridden and have been used to teach their own children how to ride. When the ponies are not being used, they are leased out to approved homes, NOT sold or auctioned off. Perhaps, doing a bit of research on the Feather Fund requirements would show that the ponies are all closely monitored and if a family can no longer keep their pony, it is rededicated BACK to the Feather Fund and would be replaced in an approved home.

  5. First, I challenge Piper to find even one Feather Fund pony in a rescue. Don’t think she will, as they are all accounted for and the group keeps track of all of them.

    Secondly, there is a big difference between a starving animal and one that is breaking down for no other reason than old age. Just like humans, there comes a time when the body starts breaking down and when that hits there is no reversal. I have witnessed it in both and am the first to admit it is not a pretty site but that is life.

    Lastly, both animals and people want very much to go home those last few days/months. Familiar surrounds seem to be a comfort in death. Sure, we can prolong life but is it worth it in the end?

    Thank you Gabrielle Sasse for an excellent article.

  6. I took my daughter to the pony penning last summer, and we saw those starving ponies too. She asked me why they were that way, why someone did not help them, and I didn’t know what to say. She started to cry so we left.

    Now I’m hearing that the fire co. put them back out on Assateague??? How can the Feather Fund people just look the other way about this and call it good management? How can this be called teaching kids responsibility, care, and love?

  7. First of all, I did not say that Feather Fund ponies specifically end up in rescue. By saying “most of these ponies,” I was referring to Chincoteague Ponies, in general. Kids outgrow Chincoteague ponies,and most ponies, oftentimes way before they even get to ride them, or they simply lose interest. I know of quite a few! That’s a fact~

    So, many do end up in rescue or worse. The Chincoteague Pony Rescue has had approximately 21 rescues just in the one year they’ve been in existence. That’s a lot of Chincoteague Ponies rescued in one year! That’s a fact~

    As for Lois S’s estimation of the sizes that these ponies get to, just look at the herd,look at the ones that are being offered for sale, and look at the ones in rescue. The average size is 13.3, definitely not large enough for the
    teens of today and only large enough for a very few adults who have watched their weight! That’s a fact~

    Regarding the ponies in the pen: When ponies get old and begin to starve to death, they are humanely euthanized, not put back out on a refuge where they have to protect themselves, find food and water, deal with being bred again, and perhaps having to carry & support yet another foal. Although Lois may not realize it, some of the skinniest ponies are NOT very old, so that cannot be used as an excuse.
    They are not wild ponies. I watched one of the skinniest ones come right up to the fence for a treat when she was called!I’ve seen photos of Surfer Dude and North Star come right up to people and get petted, both in the corrals and on the Service Rd. How wild is that?
    I believe the tubed nutrition referred to was anthelmintic!

    Everyone needs to think out of the box if they really care about these ponies! There are more than 2 choices for them after they become old and debilitated. I am sad for Lois that she does not see that. I think of contraceptives for the old mares-very successful mgmt.practice in the Maryland herd.
    OR, the final gift to give a starving creature that shows the definition of humaneness and love~euthanasia.

    I would hope that each of you would stop quibbling over wordplay and ego, and just see the big picture~there is a need for a policy regarding the starving ponies, whatever the reason for their condition may be, and I would think that an organization that is a model for children would jump on the bandwagon for a practice that would eliminate suffering in this managed herd of ponies.It is not ok to just look the other way and say it’s natural when a group of people has control over it.

    We do not have the legal option for our human loved ones to deliver them from suffering by euthanasia. But we do have that option for every animal we are responsible for who are in the end conditions that you describe as “circle of life” or “natural”. I would hope that each of you (Sue Lowery and Lois S) has employed it for your own animals when you saw it was time to make that decision~why can’t you help to offer options for this group of ponies? They are not little Mustangs~

  8. To Piper,
    I’m a Feather Fund recipient from 2012. I normally do not respond to things like this but I’d just like to say a few things.
    Regarding the Feather Fund-can you tell me when you have seen a pony, gifted by the Feather Fund, in a rescue? No, you can’t, because each pony is still with their original owner. I know three members who have outgrown their ponies, but rather than dumping them at a rescue, they leased them out to another deserving child.
    Each one of us has worked so hard to get a Chincoteague Pony. Even if we outgrow the pony, it will always remain ours. The love, the trust, the secret language between the two of us can’t be broken. A private buyer may give their foal to a rescue once it is outgrown but that is NOT the Feather Fund. The whole point of the Feather Fund is to give a child a life long best friend and foster a relationship between horse and child like no other.
    About the ponies on the island-I ask that you do your research before playing the blame game. The six ponies that were skinny this year are all over 17 years old. Actually, the youngest was 17. The rest were 20+. The Fire Co. does a wonderful job managing the herd. They do their best to keep them wild and not dependent on humans. These ponies cannot be coddled, they haven’t been since the day their ancestors stepped foot on the island. Also, during the winter, fireman supply hay and pay for it out of their own pocket. They make sure each herd has access to fresh water and has the ability to take shelter under the trees. The horses are vetted each Spring and Fall and get farrier attention if its needed. What more would you like? For them to be separated by fences ? Caged into stalls and run-ins? Supplied grain in the morning and evenings? We already have the BLM taking the freedom of America’s Mustangs, do you want to be one of the people who makes that happen to the Chincoteagues?

  9. My daughter recieved a pony in 2011..the first thing that Lois tells you is if you no longer want the pony you must give it back to the feather fund so it can be given to another child.(Angel) has given our family so much love and joy,thse ponies are easy to tame and are such wonderful animals I couldnt imagine life without her..she will have a home forever.

  10. I would like to say that I agree with the concept of the Feather Fund, bringing ponies and little girls together to teach about responsibility, care and compassion. I also agree that Pony Penning week is a wonderful and magical time. I have also been a loyal supporter of the CVFC for many, many years. However, I think it is Mollie that needs to do a little research when it comes to the lives and care of the ponies who are allowed to graze by special permit on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Coming for the pony swim once a year does not qualify one to be expert and all knowing of what happens to the ponies for the rest of the year. I have attended every roundup for 40+ years (The July pony swim and the ones that occur in the Spring and Fall)and I have never ONCE witnessed a farrier or vet for that matter, tend to the hooves of the ponies. Think about it Mollie, the ponies are in the chute to receive vacs and wormer for no more than 60 seconds. You say that they are “wild” ponies, but how long do you think that a “wild” pony is going to stand in order for a farrier to take the time needed to trim hooves? As for the older, at risk ponies that I saw on the carnival grounds this past summer, I am afraid that I have to question any breeding practices that allow these old 20 something mares to continue to breed under the guise of “herd management” for the sake of profit. I agree with Joe Fielding when he questions how seeing these old ponies and knowing what their fate will be is teaching children about compassion. Be honest Mollie. Would you allow your pony to suffer like that in it’s later years? The Fire Co. owns these ponies and should be held to the same standards as any responsible horse owner and not “hide” under the label of “wild” ponies. The Chincoteague Pony is a wonderful breed that has brought much to many. No matter how good something may seem, it can always be made a little better. Shouldn’t we all strive for this? I could go on, but will leave Mollie with this – Don’t quote as fact something that you have heard, unless you have witnessed it and can produce proof that it is so. A picture is worth a thousand words and the pictures don’t lie.
    Sally Anne Morgan

  11. Joe Fielding- It’s nice that your daughter is a compassionate person who doesn’t like to see an animal in poor condition, but to say you just walked away because you didn’t know what to tell her shows less about your ability to teach responsibility than it does about the the Feather Fund who seeks to educate. Did you try at all to ask someone in charge why the ponies were like that rather than leave your daughter upset and confused? If you had asked, the fireman could have explained to you that the “starving” ponies you saw were old animals whose bodies were deteriorating because of their age. Others might have been thin because they were nursing foals and their bodies were putting nutrition into the milk (which happens in captivity too and will resolve when the mare stops nursing the foal). And whenever you have a group of animals, there’s always going to be someone on the bottom of the hierarchy that’ll have a tougher time getting access to the best food. The only way to make sure that never happens is to individually separate horses at mealtimes, which is impossible in the wild. Getting info so you can better understand the situation is always better than just walking away ignorant and upset, and I hope you read these comments so your daughter can finally get her answers. And besides, how is it that the debates over the management of the wild herd negatively affects these FF kids taking a pony home and learning love and responsibility by giving it the best of domestic care?

    As to the horses being put back out on Assateague- like Lois and Mollie both said, there is a belief that it’s kinder to let nature take its course and let an animal that’s lived all its life in the wild end its days in a place of familiarity rather than turn its world topsy turvy by bringing it to captivity. Taking away their freedom because YOU are bothered by the reality of mortality or the challenges of living wild isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. Nature needs to be nature, and humans need to know when to help and when to back off.

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