For 17 years, Wayne Webb followed a strict, but not necessarily strenuous, morning routine.
He awoke at 6 a.m., made a cup of coffee – sometimes tea – and strolled out onto his deck.
Webb’s home is on a small island, no more than 10 acres, just off St. Helena Island. It is surrounded by a maze of interwoven creeks that would take a salty sailor to navigate. A slight breeze usually sways the marsh grass and spritzes the air with the aroma of low tide and pluff mud.
While vivid and consuming, the view is not what he’s there for.
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He’s waiting for the brown smudges to appear on the horizon. If he waits long enough, those smudges wander into focus and become marsh ponies.
There were four of them when Webb first moved to Little Horse Island in the 1990s, he said. Now 15 roam the appropriately named island.
“It was absolutely incredible, to just get up every day, and the first thing you do is walk out to the back porch to see what the ponies are doing,” said Webb, whose family recently sold the property and moved to Port Royal.
“I think that the area is absolutely beautiful without them, but there are a lot of places like it around the world,” he continued. “But there is no place this special, and these ponies are what make it something special. They give this area something that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.”
The wild ponies have called the island home since the 1950s, long before the Webbs arrived. Those lucky enough to see the blend of marsh tacky horses and Shetland ponies hope they will be there for a long time.
But the ponies face several threats – a limited food source, inbreeding and encroaching development, among them – that put that future at risk, according to retired equestrian veterinarian Venaye Reece McGlashan, who moved to St. Helena several years ago.
Such concerns have spurred the community to act.
Unwilling to accept a Little Horse Island without the little horses, groups are working to protect and preserve this uniquely Beaufort County treasure.
A hardy breed
The Little Horse Island ponies are direct descendants of marsh tackies, a Lowcountry breed of stocky horses native to the Sea Islands. However, the ponies have adapted to their unique environment.
They know where to walk to stay on sand and out of the gripping pluff mud, said McGlashan, who often follows the paths they take. And at those times when the gluey muck is unavoidable, they have learned to slog through. Their chestnut brown hair often is stained by mud caked high up their legs.
Regular horses would not survive – let alone thrive – as this wild herd has, according to McGlashan, a vet for more than 35 years.
“It’s just crazy to me that they’ve been here since the 1950s, but they’re so sure-footed and they know how to live here,” she said. “Because of my horse background, I can recognize what a special thing this is.”
Despite its decades-long persistence on the marsh, the population faces several problems.
More than a month ago, four ponies wandered from Little Horse onto the larger Horse Island and from there onto St. Helena. Their habitat is partially enclosed by a wood-and-wire fence, Webb said, but it is difficult to maintain, and some of the horses have discovered a way out.
With 19 ponies living on the island and their food supply limited, the horses likely escaped to forage, McGlashan said.
One fall weekend, one of the ponies was struck and killed near the intersection of Seaside and Horse Island roads.
The three others have since been removed from the island so they wouldn’t show the remaining 15 how to leave. One was fostered, and the other two were taken to Camelot Farms Equestrian Center on St. Helena.
But that temporary solution did not fix the fencing or provide more food for the remaining herd.
Webb’s wife, Catherine, has long been concerned about both problems, but she didn’t know how to address them.
“We care about these ponies because we’ve watched them for years and they’ve become part of our lives,” she said. At one point, the Webbs had named all the ponies and could draw their family tree. Bear, who died a few years ago, was her favorite. He was fierce, spectacular, the wildest stallion, she said.
“It’s not that the ponies need us,” Catherine Webb added, “but that we need to keep them safe from us and do what we can to protect them, because we are infringing on their habitat.”
She said the death of the pony, though tragic, is now convincing others to act.
McGlashan identified three options: Remove the ponies, start a nonprofit organization to manage the herd, or work with the county and state to make the area a sanctuary.
McGlashan, the Webbs and others – including nearby residents and Tallulah Trice, director of Beaufort County Animal Control – said they see only one option worth pursuing: Creating a sanctuary.
“These particular ponies have such a unique and rich heritage that we really couldn’t re-create anywhere else,” McGlashan said. “Everyone wants to maintain these ponies. Getting rid of them does not seem to be a real option for any of us.
“But then it’s a question of, how do we keep them?”
One day last fall, community members and state officials began to answer that question with a project that was equal parts manpower, creativity and time.
It began with an 8:30 a.m. roundup, in which the ponies were lured with carrots and feed into pens. Initially reluctant to accept those enticements, the herd moved slowly, never taking too many steps before glancing back toward the comfort of the marsh.
Once corralled, the horses were sterilized, photographed, implanted with microchips and had their hooves cleaned – “quite an operation” as McGlashan described it.
The day culminated at about 6 p.m. when the wild ponies were released back into their natural habitat. While the people helping them were fatigued from the long day, the ponies quick-stepped ever so slightly when their hooves touched the familiar marsh.
Throughout the day, Adam Eichelberger, director of animal health programs with the Clemson Livestock Poultry Health Programs, marveled at the ponies – their strength when they reared up on their back legs fighting to break free of their confinement, the scars that engraved their legs and hooves from life in the marsh, and their will to stay wild, often ambling past the hay in their pens to graze on patches of grass.
When Eichelberger got the call to be a part of the roundup operation, he was intrigued and excited.
He also was a little surprised. He’d been visiting Beaufort County and Fripp Island for more than 25 years but never knew the ponies were right across the marsh.
“After growing up in South Carolina and its horse industry and then finding out something unique like this down here, it is one of those little surprises and a little jewel,” said Eichelberger, the project’s lead veterinarian. He was impressed that residents had united to control and preserve the pony population.
To accomplish that goal, the stallions were anesthetized – though they fought to stay standing until their legs failed them – and castrated so they could no longer reproduce.
The mares were given a vaccine shipped in from Montana that works like birth control and renders them unable to get pregnant for a year. They will need a booster shot in the spring for the first dose, according to McGlashan. Once the drug is stopped the mares can foal again.
The sterilization served two purposes, Eichelberger said.
It prevents the herd from growing, so their limited feeding area won’t be over-grazed. Some of the ponies are not as healthy or well-fed as Eichelberger would like. Their hip bones protrude slightly under skin that is pulled taut over rib bones, creating a dimpled surface.
It also prevents further inbreeding. Since the herd is isolated, there are no new blood lines. Having the same genes generation after generation can lead to problems with growth and development, Eichelberger said.
For example, a few of the stallions have cryptorchidism, a condition in which their testicles do not descend from their abdomens. These horses could not be castrated, and the defect does not always render them infertile, according to McGlashan. That means the horses could still reproduce and pass the defect along.
That health problems are not more prominent, however, speaks to the strength of their original genetic lines, McGlashan said.
Slowing the animals’ reproduction was crucial to reduce the likelihood other maladies would develop, and it lets the herd focus on nutrition and development instead of reproduction, according to Eichelberger.
Should the population wane, however, arrangements have been made to introduce a new stallion to boost numbers and maintain the genetic line.
“Being able to do what we can to control the population a little bit and help preserve these ponies, and a piece of history, really, is so important,” Eichelberger said.
‘God’s gift to us’
Many people living around the island – as well as a growing marsh-pony fan base throughout the county – agree that saving the wild herd is worthwhile.
Charles Gay talks about his memories of Little Horse Island.
“I think for a lot of the Lowcountry people who live around here, it is almost in their DNA to want to preserve things,” said Julie Hodgson, a 19-year resident of St. Helena, who has long enjoyed the ponies. “They are just different and such a natural part of the area, so it doesn’t surprise me that all these people have come together to help protect them.”
That includes Little Horse Island’s new owner, Wayne Jernigan of Charlotte.
Jernigan admits knowing little about horses, but he wants to share the island with them. In fact, they are a large part of what attracted him to the property.
Although the ponies live on Jernigan’s island, he does not own them.
“The horses are a part of the island and a part of the landscape, and they were here before me,” Jernigan said. “I was informed that some problems had come up with the horses, and it is the right thing to do to fix those problems and help keep them here.”
But the long, exhausting hours on that recent fall day are only the start – and the easy part, McGlashan said.
Now supporters must work with local and state governments to find a way to protect the ponies.
The Webbs favor an ordinance that declares the marsh ponies a protected animal in Beaufort County.
Managing the ponies would be relatively simple, McGlashan said. They are wild animals and their preservation should not routinely include food or medical attention beyond the occasional birth control update. The main task and expense would be installing and maintaining a proper fence, she said, though she did not have an estimate available.
While Beaufort County’s pony population is unique, several other herds like it exist along the East Coast – such as the Chincoteague pony in Virginia and the Banker horse in North Carolina. McGlashan said she spoke with those who oversee the Banks herds for guidance in creating a management plan for the Little Horse Island ponies.
Creating a sanctuary might benefit the handful of people annoyed by their presence, island resident Hodgson said.
The horses sometimes wander into yards to eat grass and make a mess of things. A sanctuary would keep them confined, Hodgson said. It also could include a viewing area that allowed visitors to watch them from a safe distance without trespassing on private property, McGlashan said.
Hodgson said others question whether people should intervene at all. They say that since they are wild ponies, nature should be allowed to run its course.
Those involved in preserving the ponies disagree.
Humans and development have encroached on the ponies, supporters said, and now people and ponies must learn to live together. Even more, McGlashan said, humans must help the ponies live in their most natural state.
“If we weren’t here, the ponies wouldn’t miss us,” she argues. “But if they were gone, we would miss them tremendously.”
Catherine Webb agrees.
“These ponies are beautiful and God’s gift to us, and we want to keep them safe and protected,” she said. “We recognize as a community that they are something we want to cherish, protect and preserve. Just like we protect any of the other community treasures, this is part of Beaufort’s history.”