Our State Animals: Check out the full series. Lindessa, a black-and-white paint mare with one blue eye and one brown eye, liked to take her time with her morning breakfast.
Our State Animals: Check out the full series.
Lindessa, a black-and-white paint mare with one blue eye and one brown eye, liked to take her time with her morning breakfast. She would chew slowly while Laura Michaels, an animal caretaker for Cape Hatteras National Seashore, hand-fed her grain pellets, one partial scoop at a time. While Lindessa ate, Michaels would sing or talk to her and contemplate the life that the old mare had lived.
The horse earned the special attention: The 37-year-old matriarch was the oldest of Ocracoke Island’s Spanish mustangs when she died in August, and, with four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren, she contributed her fair share to the herd.
No one knows for sure how the ponies got to Ocracoke. They may have arrived in the 16th century, when Spanish ships wrecked offshore: Their number of vertebrae and ribs supports the theory that the mustangs are descended from Spanish horses. However they arrived, the ponies have inhabited Ocracoke since before the first Europeans settled here in the 1730s, making them as much a symbol of the island today as the Ocracoke Lighthouse or fig trees.
While the ponies roamed wild for centuries, these days they’re cared for — well cared for — by the National Park Service. “They’re spoiled rotten,” Michaels says, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She remembers when Hurricane Isabel blew through in 2003. Several fences were destroyed when the boardwalk across from the pony pen smashed through them before landing in the stallion pen. After the storm, Michaels, anxious to see how the ponies had fared, had to drive down the beach to get to the pen because five miles of NC Highway 12 had been washed out. More than a dozen horses had been freed, but they hadn’t gone far. “They were out in the parking lot, looking at their pony watches, saying, ‘It’s been two days; we’re really hungry!’” Michaels jokes.
It was just after Hurricane Isabel that Howard Bennink last rode Mr. Bob, a pinto gelding in the Ocracoke herd. The Park Service had called on volunteers to help put up temporary fences at the pony pens to replace those that had been damaged in the storm. Bennink saddled up Bob and rode along the fence perimeter, looking for damage and making repairs.
Bob and Bennink first joined forces in 1981, the year that the Park Service started using horses for mounted patrols on the island. Bennink had moved to Ocracoke during the summer of ’75, looking to escape the steel construction job he had in Michigan — “Too many ways to die,” he says — in exchange for a life of surfing. He landed a lifeguarding job with the Park Service that ran from Memorial Day through Labor Day. During the shoulder months, the NPS would hire lifeguards to work at the pony pen, building barns, repairing fences, and doing anything else that was needed.
Bennink never had one of his own, but he had grown up around horses, so he was comfortable around them. In 1980, he started teaching at Ocracoke School and working fall weekends at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. That winter, he went to ranger school. He’d heard that the Park Service was considering starting a mounted patrol, and he was interested. He wrote the district ranger and asked to be considered, and in 1981, he transferred to a seasonal mounted ranger position on Ocracoke.
He was assigned to work with Bob, and though the horse was already broken, he wasn’t used to the long patrols that rangers were required to take along the beach, from the pony pen to the airport and back. The first time Bennink took Bob on patrol, they tracked circles into the sand — Bennink steering Bob toward the airport, and Bob turning around to head back to the pen. But Bennink was a natural with horses, and he quickly realized that he could get the pony to listen and respond by singing to him. Bob’s ears would turn back as Bennink crooned cowboy ballads.
The rides were long, and the days were hard, but there was always the reward of each other’s company. The public loved the horses, and often there would be pets and scratches from beachgoers — for Bob, at least. Other days, there would be no one around but man and horse, developing a bond that would last a lifetime.
The NPS ended the mounted patrols in the 1990s. Rangers on horseback couldn’t respond to emergencies as quickly as rangers in vehicles, and there was also the added liability. Bennink continued working as a teacher and administrator at Ocracoke School and went on to become a biotechnician for the Park Service; he and his wife, Daphne, also purchased the Back Porch Restaurant in the village in 1998.
After teaming up in 2003 for the fence repair work in the wake of Isabel, Bennink didn’t see the horse much until 2010, when he received a phone call from the Park Service. Bob was in his final days. After hanging up the phone, Bennink headed to the pony pen, where his old set of keys still worked. Once inside, he stood looking at the ponies, searching for his old friend, when suddenly, he felt some-thing nuzzle from behind. He turned around and laughed when he saw that it was Bob.
“It was shocking that he remembered me before I picked him out,” Bennink says. He threw his arms around the old horse. “It was very emotional,” he says. “We had a love fest!” Bob died not long after, but he’d lived a good life. At 33 years old, he was the oldest of the herd at the time of his passing.
Rudy Austin sits in a white painted rocking chair on the front porch of the Ocracoke Preservation Society, across Highway 12 from the Silver Lake ferry terminal. He’s flipping through old photographs in a manila folder on his lap, pointing out members of Boy Scout Troop 290, the only mounted troop in the country at the time of its inception in 1954. “There’s Lewis,” he says. “Lewis Tolleson. This is Lindsey Howard; he passed last year. This is me, here. This is David Esham; he used to own the Pony Island Motel.”
The troop was started by Marvin Howard, a native Ocracoker who left the island to join the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — like so many used to do because job opportunities in the village were few — and returned in his retirement. “It was his dream when he retired from the Army Corps to come back and do that,” Austin says.
Like the other island boys, Austin was excited when he learned that Howard was starting the troop, and eagerly worked odd jobs — cutting grass, cleaning fish, heading shrimp — to earn the money to purchase his first pony. “Moine cost $75,” Austin says in his Ocracoke brogue. He picked out a friendly bay and named it Diablo.
After a pony was purchased, there was more work to be done. The horses back then roamed free. They were wild. They had to be broken. Howard had grown up riding ponies around the island, before there were paved roads, and he taught the boys how to train their ponies. They blindfolded the horses to calm them before putting a saddle on. Then they’d fill a pair of pants with sand and tie them onto a pony’s back to get it used to bearing weight. The first time a boy mounted his pony, he would take it out in the ocean, belly deep. It was harder for the horse to throw a rider out there, but if it did happen, the ocean provided a soft landing.
After breaking a pony, there were other tricks to be learned. The boys would meet up at Howard’s house in the evenings, and he’d teach them how to run and jump onto their ponies from behind, just like in the old Westerns. Some of the boys taught their horses to kneel. Austin taught Diablo how to rear up on his hind legs by pulling up on the reins and tucking his feet under the pony’s front legs.
Once a year, the boys would take the ponies to the Pirate’s Jamboree up at Hatteras — each boy holding his pony steady on the ferry ride, only 35 minutes in those days, then riding all the way up to Buxton, where they’d race and show off their tricks. The crowds loved it, and the boys got to enjoy the camaraderie of an overnight camping trip.
The horses roamed free even after being claimed by the Scouts. “Most of ’em hung out right out behind the dance hall — we all referred to it as Morris’s place,” Austin says. “There used to be a grassy strip all the way down going toward the south end of the island there, and they would all hang out there.” Unrestrained, they would get into mischief in the town, and village women would complain when their flower beds were trampled, or their freshly washed sheets, hanging on the line, were soiled by ponies who liked to walk through them to knock the flies off their backs. Still, “they were a part of life then,” Austin says.
Experience as a mounted Boy Scout “helped a lot of us boys throughout life, the things that we learned,” Austin says. “Knot-tying. How to help other people.” And, he says, “we learned a lot of respect from the horses. They’re powerful animals.”
Most of all, they loved being together. As Austin flips through photographs, he points to each boy in turn. He’s still living. He’s passed. He lives in Elizabeth City. The Park Service took over the non-village parts of the island in 1953, and after Highway 12 was built in 1957 and ’58, the ponies were penned for their safety and the safety of motorists. The boys outgrew the Scouts, but the tight-knit group stayed friends throughout their lives.
Michaels stands in the small office within the pony pen that’s attached to the barn. The wall in front of her desk is lined with photos of the ponies that are still living, while the wall over the only window holds photos of those that have died. Michaels points to them one by one, rattling off the personality quirks that make each unique. “I always say they’re like a bunch of children or a pack of dogs,” she says. “They’ve all got different personalities, that’s for darn sure.”
Outside, two horses whinny. Michaels identifies the first as Sacajawea, the second as Captain. Each pony has a distinctive whinny, and she knows every one. “Captain” is short for “Captain Marvin Howard” — most of the ponies are named by the local schoolchildren, with monikers that are relevant to Ocracoke or Spanish mustangs. Captain carries on the legacy of the man who meant so much to Boy Scout Troop 290.
The 9-year-old chestnut loves to eat pennywort, which grows wild on the island. His mother was Jitterbug, who was adopted from Cape Lookout National Seashore because the herd needed new breeding mares. When Captain was a baby, he wasted no time discovering his new legs. “He was tearing around at 2 days old!” Michaels says. When a rooster got loose in the pony pen, hanging around for a few days and scaring many of the ponies, fearless Captain chased it away.
Michaels and other caretakers feed the horses twice a day, groom them, clean their water troughs, shovel manure. “I take care of these clowns,” she says. Then she chuckles and adds with a smile, “They’re not clowns. They’re my friends.” She loves what she does, although it can be difficult when a beloved pony like Lindessa or Mr. Bob dies. She produces a newspaper clipping of Mr. Bob’s obituary. “It’s tough sometimes,” she says, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For information about how to adopt a pony on Ocracoke Island, visit obxforever.org/adoptapony.print it