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(And a little red-haired girl.)

It’s a ninety-three-year-old tradition.

People come from far and wide to watch the wild ponies swim.

The small, sturdy and shaggy horses on Assateague Island in Virginia.

They have adapted to their environment by eating the local dune and marsh grasses and drinking fresh water from the various ponds.

As a farmer’s daughter I was interested on how they controlled the herd.

Every year, on the last Thursday in July, the “Salt Water Cowboys” herd the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. They cross at the narrowest part of the channel at low tide. After a rest period and an inspection by veterinarians, they are herded to the Carnival Grounds.

The following day there’s an auction of the new foals. The auction serves a dual purpose. A source of revenue for the local Fire Company and a way to trim the herd’s numbers. It’s a hard life on the Island and the vegetation cannot support many horses. The herd is limited to 150 ponies to retain the permit to graze on the island.

A highlight of the auction is the “Buy Back” of selected foals. The foal must be donated back to the Fire Company. It then returns to the island to replenish the herd. The temporary “owner” gets a certificate and can name the foal. In the weird and wonderful way these things work, “Buy Back” ponies have become the highest priced sold at the auction!

The origin of the ponies is a mystery. One theory is that early settlers released their horses on the islands to forage. Another is that they swam off the La Galga, a Spanish Galleon, that sank in 1750.     ( )

I’d missed the actual event, but the Captain arranged for a visit to see the wild ponies in their natural habitat.

On a blistering hot Wednesday, we boarded a sightseeing pontoon boat in Chincoteague. From here we cruised to the Nature Reserve of Assateague for a glimpse, hopefully, of the wild ponies.

The Captain and I arrived first. He headed straight for the shaded part of the pontoon. I followed.

Along came two young women and a little girl.

“Ah” I thought. “Mom and friend out with small daughter.”

The little girl had the most gorgeous bright red hair. And a milk white skin that screamed “sunburn!”

I got up and said-

“She can’t be in the sun. Sit here. I’ll go up front.”

Front being in full sun.

It was a small pontoon. If we all wedged in under the canopy, it would be a tight fit. And no, I wasn’t being a martyr. I love full sun providing there’s a breeze.

They looked at each other, looked at the munchkin, and agreed.

One stayed in the shade with the little girl. The other joined me in the sun.

“He can’t handle the sun,” I said, pointing at the Captain. “He burns. I tan.”

She laughed. Pointed at her friend. “She burns. I tan,” she said.

I lathered myself with sunscreen. Offered some. “It’s okay,” she said. “We did that before we came.”

We saw the ponies grazing.

We saw herons and egrets and ospreys.

We saw dolphins frolicking and mating.

A wonderful day and a great experience.

But the day will stay with me for a different reason.

My sun-loving companion was an avid photographer. I noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring.

“Single mom,” I thought. “Sad. So glad she has a friend with her.”

She appeared the dominant of the two women. Awareness crept in.

The dolphins were in front of the pontoon.

“Go to mommy,” the woman in the shade would say, sending the munchkin scurrying to the front.

“Go to mommy,” my sun companion would say, sending the munchkin the other way when those danged dolphins changed direction.

Back and forth she went. She got tired. Settled into a comfortable lap in the shade. Eyes drooping.

My companion wore a T-shirt with a logo that said –

“Gayfinder” and then the rest of the Hogwarts School and Harry Potter mumbo jumbo.

I found it amusing and brave and sweet and sad all rolled into one. I wanted to say something nice but for once in my life couldn’t find the words. Me who normally can strike up a conversation with a mailbox! According to the Captain.

But I could talk to the little one. She’d reappeared on the front when the dolphins again changed direction.

“How old are you?” I asked.

She stuck her head into my companion’s neck. Too shy.

“Five,” sun mom told me.

“You have a beautiful daughter,” I said.

My reward was a huge smile, a genuine one, and a thank you.

We disembarked.

I fell behind with them. The Captain way ahead.

“She has gorgeous hair,” I said. “I’m so jealous.”

“You have a beautiful daughter,” I said again. “Have a great day.”

A lovely young family enjoying a day out.

A little girl with two mommies.

But please, oh please, let the world be kind to my little red-haired munchkin when she starts school. When other kids talk about mommies and daddies and she has no daddy. And she doesn’t understand and how do you explain?

Cyber Hugs and Blessings All. Be kind. Always.

(Suggested reading for children: “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry.)

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