Ponies of the Grayson Highlands

Source:  Appalachian Voices

By Otto Solberg

ponies_snow-300x167 Ponies were introduced to the Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers area of Southwest Virginia in the 1970s. Since then, they have become a popular attraction. This image was also a Flora and Fauna Finalist in the 11th Annual Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition. Photo by Sharon Canter

ponies_family-300x174This mare and her foal were grazing at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands. Photo by Martin Seelig of Catchlight Gallery

After just a few miles of walking through Grayson Highlands State Park, hikers can meet herds of wild ponies who are generally unconcerned by human presence. The rhododendron along the lower-elevation trails soon clears, giving way to the open grassy balds that characterize the Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The balds reveal stunning views of the Southwest Virginia mountains, and upon a closer look, hikers can spot more white and brown ponies grazing between the rock outcroppings on nearby ridges.

“I would bet that 50 percent of the people that come there, come for the ponies,” says Elizabeth Wegmann, a landscaper and animal photographer who hikes the area several times a month, learning the ways of the estimated 100 ponies that call these mountains home.

[The Grayson highlands ponies] have 1,500 acres of contained area that they can roam in the state park,” says Teresa Tibbs, the office manager at Grayson Highlands State Park. In the neighboring national recreation area, the ponies are also contained in a fenced area of over 3,500 acres, according to Rebecca Robbins with the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

The ponies maintain the mountain balds by eating grasses and small shrubs.These open grasslands are not natural, but were cleared and used as farmland before the area became park lands. The ponies have not caused overgrazing issues, in Wegmann’s opinion, and in 2012, longhorn cattle were also added to the Mount Rogers area to help graze the balds during the warmer months.

The cattle are removed in the winter while the ponies stay and forage for food through the snow. Wegmann has observed that winter weather decreases the herds’ activity because they stay near various water sources, but harsh winters can force the ponies to spread out from their herds in search of food.

Troubles with Treats

Signs in the park urge visitors not to feed the ponies, but Tibbs says the park has issues “continuously.” Dependence on handouts of human food can cause serious health and behavioral problems for the ponies.

Ponies lack the ability to vomit, so human food can also cause health issues such as choking. Also, too much sugar can cause a disease known as laminitis, which causes the ponies to have sore and sometimes diseased hooves. When bad enough, the pain can severely debilitate the ponies. Without the ability to walk, the ponies will starve to death.

Despite this danger, the wild ponies have grown accustomed to being fed by hikers, and will approach visitors without fear.

“When you hand-feed a wild animal, you create a pattern that exists long after you leave,” says Wegmann. “You’re doing a disservice to the animal, and anyone that comes after you, by making them a beggar and a nuisance.”

Read the rest of this story at: http://appvoices.org/2016/12/15/ponies-of-the-grayson-highlands/#sthash.PJ0EXAEz.dpuf

One comment on “Ponies of the Grayson Highlands

  1. Educating people how to behave around WILD animals – any of them – needs to be done! Sadly, its the animals that suffer when they become too tame or dependent upon handouts. This is true of horses, ponies, bears or any wild creature. We do NO favors by getting too close. Remember the little bison calf last year or the year before? People “helping” were the cause of its being euthanized!!

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