Wild ponies on Little Horse Island doing well
Shouts pierce the late-afternoon fog that has settled over the marsh.
"Come on!" calls Venaye Reece McGlashan and claps her hands. "Come, ponies!"
In the distance, a couple of ponies slowly emerge from the gray mist, like apparitions.
More come into view. There are eight in all, including the yearling colt, Scruffy.
They are the last of a herd of wild ponies that roams the marshes of Little Horse Island in northern Beaufort County. Last year, the herd's numbers had climbed to 19. But in November, over half were removed in a first-of-its-kind roundup to try to save the marsh tacky horse-Shetland pony mixes that have inhabited a small slice of St. Helena Island since the 1950s.
The roundup followed a tragic accident. The herd had gotten too large and had depleted its supply of marsh grass and other food sources. The ponies were often seen in the nearby neighborhood searching for food. But they had roamed too far. One of the herd's oldest, a pregnant mare, was hit by a car and died.
So McGlashan, a retired veterinarian who lives on St. Helena Island, and others determined something had to be done to protect the ponies. During the roundup, they gelded the stallions, tended to the ponies' medical needs and adopted out all of the ones that had learned to escape their natural habitat and could teach the others to do the same.
Those that remain came trotting toward McGlashan last Tuesday for their daily feed.
"They're pretty fat and happy and seem to be doing well," McGlashan says.
They have survived the cold of winter and this fall's flooding.
One of the oldest mares, Passion, barely escaped drowning earlier this year. She had gotten stuck in the pluff mud. Fortunately, she was able to swim out on the rising tide.
McGlashan also reports that a severe cut on the leg of stallion "E" has healed. In last November's roundup, vets cleaned his leg and gave him a shot of antibiotics. It was the type of wound that could have caused him to be put down, but "E" showed the survival skills that make up this hardy breed. His leg was back to normal within weeks.
"It should have crippled him," McGlashan says. "They're very tough."
Despite their toughness, obstacles remain for the wild ponies' long-term survival. The main challenge: Keeping the ponies behind the fences and the curious humans out of their way.
KEEPING THE HORSES IN
The old mares that lead the herd, Passion and Easter, amble past McGlashan to the small piles of hay and feed pellets her husband, Dave, has set out in a clearing beyond a patch of live oaks.
A trough fed by a freshwater well also awaits them.
A few more gallop in, pluff mud clinging to their legs.
Scruffy, who was born in spring 2014, is one of the last to arrive. He trots forward, bumping into an elder pony on his way to the feed. McGlashan says Scruffy will be gelded this winter.
Heads down, tails swishing, the ponies munch away.
The McGlashans have been feeding the ponies each day since October as the marsh grass and other grasses the ponies survive on have either been eaten, or ruined in the tidal flooding. Neighbors and pony lovers have donated food.
The McGlashans also had to feed them last fall and winter. But when spring came and the grass returned, Venaye McGlashan says, the horses stayed out in the marsh to graze, turning up their noses at the offered hay.
"They need grass, and they've adapted to that marsh grass," she says. "All the salt -- I don't know how they do it."
She hopes the daily feeds will also give the marsh grass time to grow back, and with the smaller herd, there shouldn't be as much pressure on their natural food source.
Without the hay being offered now, however, they would start searching for greener areas, which could lead them to meet the fate of the pregnant mare that was hit by a car last year. So far, the ponies haven't figured out the escape route their former herd mates had followed.
McGlashan holds out hope a sanctuary can be established, preferably with a public viewing area with educational information about the ponies.
So far, though, no major discussions have occurred with Beaufort County or nonprofit organizations on a long-term solution. McGlashan has led the roundup and feeding efforts and hopes someone else can head up the public cause. Other alternatives include creating a nonprofit organization to manage the ponies or moving the herd.
KEEPING THE CURIOUS AT BAY
Beaufort County Animal Services director Tallulah Trice said her department has kept up with the pony adoptions, and she reports the ponies are doing well with their new owners.
As for a long-term solution for the wild ponies, she said, no plans are in place.
"Right now, everything is fine," she said of the ponies. "The way it is is working out."
She hopes that for the long-term, the ponies will be able to stay where they are, and she appreciates the work of the McGlashans, who are both experienced in dealing with feral horses.
Trice and the McGlashans also hope people will respect the ponies' boundaries."I know everybody would love to see them and get close," Venaye McGlashan says. "But they're on private property."
They're also unpredictable.
"They will kick. They will bite," she says. "If you try and crowd one of them, they'd kick the fool out of you."
Follow city editor Don McLoud at twitter.com/IPBG_Don.