August 13, 2012

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, on those whose hope is in His unfailing love…We wait in hope for the Lord; He is our help and our shield. In Him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in His Holy name. Psalm 33:17-18, 20-21

Continuing in my series on summer shore spots in the national parks, I’m thinking today about the wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore.

Earlier this year, at the start of the hurricane season, I read an article about them and the barrier island on which they live. As you might imagine, fierce storms are a danger to this spit of land that has its north entrance 8 miles south of Ocean City, Maryland, and southern access from Chincoteague, Virginia. Diane Ackerman, the author The New York Times piece, relates that she grew up reading Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague” books, a fiction series that tells the story of real characters and horses. (The horses are split into two main herds, one on the Virginia side and one on the Maryland side of the island, and separated by a fence at the state line. The Park Service manages the Maryland herd, and the Virginia herd is often referred to as the Chincoteague ponies.)

One of the Misty books is titled “Stormy, Misty’s Foal,” and is based on the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, a destructive hurricane that ravaged the East Coast for nearly three days and tore up the city of Chincoteague. Many of the ponies died in the fierce storm, but Misty and her newborn—who was named Stormy—survived. But it took many years for the coastline and its cities and towns to recover, and also for the wild ponies to repopulate. As Ackerman notes, “only the fittest and smartest ponies survived.”

These horses have to be hardy. Not only do they face extreme weather conditions, but a poor food supply. They eat abundant but nutrient-poor saltmarsh cordgrass, hay and beach grass (their short stature is a result of adapting to the low-quality diet). They also drink about twice the amount of water that domesticated horses due, because of their salty food supply, which contributes to their bloated appearance.

Still, even these sturdy horses are vulnerable, not only to climate, but from humans. Visitors are enthralled watching the beautiful, wild ponies, seemingly so carefree and strong.  But feeding and/or petting them is detrimental to their health—“people food” can make them sick, and horses that learn to come up to the road seeking food can get hit by cars.

And of course, they are managed, so their population doesn’t overrun the island. The Park Service uses contraceptives to limit offspring to fewer than ten foals a year, just enough to sustain the numbers. In the Virginia herd, most of the 60-90 foals born annually are auctioned off every July, which benefits the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which has charge of the herd.

One day I hope to get down to Assateague to see the horses myself. I imagine they’re quite magnificent. But just reading about them reminds me that as impressive and robust as they are, they really are as weak as I am. Like them, I know how to “survive,” how to get along in this world. But so often I come to a point where things don’t go as I’d hoped or planned, when unexpected circumstances and up-and-down emotions take over, and I feel helpless.

At those times, I can’t rely on an army to help me, nor a horse, nor even my battered self. I need a God who’s bigger than that, One who says He’s always watching out for and waiting to help those who are fully committed to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9).

My prayer is that you too can say, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but I trust in the name of the Lord my God” (Psalm 20:7).

One comment

  1. Elise Daly Parker says:

    Yes, Penny! I too want to visit Assateague as I have heard about these horses for years. And yes, we need help surviving in this world. So thankful for our God who reaches down from Heaven to protect and provide.

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