Appalachian Trail by County: Grayson's Wild Ponies

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GRAYSON CO., Va. (WDBJ7) Every Monday on WDBJ7 Mornin' we will tell you stories along the trail in our "Appalachian Trail by County" series. For every county the AT runs through in Southwest Virginia, we will highlight a unique tale of the trail. This week, we take you to Grayson County and show you how wild it can get.

Grayson Wild Ponies

The Wild Ponies up on the Highlands

It was in the 1970s a herd of wild ponies found a new home at the Grayson Highland State Park. A horse breeder had gotten up there in age and could no longer take care of the horses he had. The state and federal government decided to use the wild ponies for a resource management initiative. The resource being the grass and the management being the ponies' appetite. Essentially the ponies act as a self-maintained landscaping crew.

"Without them everything would grow up," state park ranger Theresa Tibbs said.

Now, visitors flock to the park to get a glimpse of a herd that has been self-sustaining for the last four decades.

"For the most part Mother Nature takes care of them out here and that's kind of cool," Tibbs said.

The ponies have 1,500 acres of state land and thousands of acres in federal land to roam free. So the biggest question, and the biggest challenge, for visitors is "Where do I find the ponies?"

There's no way to tell for sure but a good place to start is parking at the Massie's Gap parking lot then hike up on the Rhododendron Trail to the northern most part of the park that borders Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. From there it's anyone's guess but you should be able to see some on your trek.

"The total number of the herd is about 85 but it increases when they have their babies," Tibbs said.

Those in the know say the babies should arrive in the coming weeks. It'll be a popular time in the park and the most important thing to remember is DON'T FEED OR TOUCH THE PONIES . Not only is it not good for them but touching them can be dangerous because they bite.

"They are wild animals and they will come close and they will bite. How bad does the bite hurt? It hurts. They want to clamp down and they don't want to let go," Tibbs explained.

Their sustainability depends on proper behavior from visitors. It also depends on a little boost from a group of families that made a commitment to watch them years ago.

The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association

Brother Moore, yes his first name is "Brother", remembers when his father H.R. Moore Jr. said "Lets buy those ponies up on the mountain." It was when Brother was in high schooler and in teenager fashion, he responded "Why?"

"I mean at the time, we already had 200 cows and 200 horses to take care of," Brother said.

This story dates back to the 70s and the mountain H.R. was referring to was Mount Rogers near the Grayson Highlands.

"My dad loved to go up the mountain to get out and ride the horses," Brother said. "He enjoyed nature and to him there was nothing better than going out and seeing all the babies in the Spring."

That love of nature prompted a group of families to go in together and purchase the wild pony herd. Like an heirloom passed down through generations, so does the responsibility of taking care of the ponies up on the highlands. Four families now run what is called the "Wilburn Ridge Pony Association." Brother is the president.

"I didn't want the responsibility at first," Brother said. "But now I have two granddaughters and all they talk about is going up and checking on the ponies."

Brother said in the 70s the state and feds wanted a group to manage them and that's when the families stepped in. Now their job is to simply make sure they're healthy. They'll put out feed and also worming blocks twice a year. Brother says you hardly ever find anything wrong with them because nature pretty much takes care of everything.

"A horse or pony are like a buffalo and they'll paw the ground and get to the grass where a cow will stand there and starve to death," Brother explained.

Every year on the last weekend of September, the association will hold an auction. Any of the money raised in the auction goes back to caring for the ponies. The association has an auction primarily for two reasons.

First off, many of the mares have two babies a year. This is problematic because a mare can really only take care of one. So taking the babies off the mares prevents them from starving to death. Secondly, the auction serves as a stallion population control. Brother says you don't need but one stallion for every 20 mares and if you have 20 stallions than you'll have 20 groups on the whole mountain. More groups means it's harder to manage.

The most famous pony of them all is the lead stallion named Fabio. Brother says Fabio has been the main stallion for a while but for the past years Fabio hasn't been doing his job. The association is hopeful another stallion will step up and take Fabio's throne.

It's what gives this pony herd the "wild" distinction. It's what will sustain the pony herd for generations to come and you can be certain the association will be along with them every gallop of the way.

"When the kids take over, the grandkids take over," is how Brother described the association's operations.

The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association is a family legacy and with Brother's nine grandkids it is sure to live on as nature continues to take care of the wild pony herd up on Grayson County's highlands.