There are horses throughout history that gain notoriety, living on in people’s hearts long after they’re gone. Roy Roger’s horse Trigger comes to mind, as does Misty — a wild pony made famous in the 1947 children’s book Misty of Chincoteague, penned by Marguerite Henry. Another, a possible descendant of Misty, is Surfer Dude; a stallion born and raised on the Island of Assateague, one of the few stallions that guard the north and south herds on Assateague Island — a federal reserve for wild horses.
Surfer Dude, a solid chocolate colored stallion with white socks, a blonde mane and a blue left eye, was known for his gentleness. Besides the foals people come to buy at the annual auction, he is the pony stallion people seem thrilled to see leading the herd out of the water — “There’s Surfer Dude!” can be heard echoing along the river.
Unfortunately, Surfer Dude wasn’t present during this spring’s round-up. Typically, the Saltwater Cowboys and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, who own and maintain the wild herd, collect ponies for vet Dr. Charlie Cameron to perform various health checks on, but during this year’s round-up, searchers had to unmount and walk the reserve to find him. Surfer Dude was located in a far-off, obscure end of the island, where he apparently went off to die, presumably in early March.
“Twenty-three in the wild is an old age,” said CVFC member and spokesperson, Denise Bowden, “for some reason, he was just as famous as Misty, with that blonde mane, that blue eye, gentle, just a handsome thing. People just kinda latched onto him and fell in love with him.”
Bowden and other CVFC members had quite a few tears in their eyes, as they met to figure out how to tell the public about Surfer Dude’s passing. They posted the announcement of his death on Facebook, it received 51,000 hits within the first 41 hours.
Thousands of visitors filled up hotels to attend this July’s 90th Annual Pony Penning and auction, hoping to buy one of his foals, the last of his progeny. Since 1925, the ponies and foals that live year round on Assateague Island have been rounded up to swim at slack tide from Assateague to Chincoteague, where the foals are auctioned off. The money raised helps support the fire department and help them pay for pony upkeep, delivering hay and water in winter with pumper trucks and keeping the herd down to its maximum of 150 ponies.
The first foal arriving on shore is raffled off and called King or Queen Neptune, this year it was a colt. All 7,000 dollar raffle tickets were sold. “It’s not the first time tickets have sold out, but the first time in a long time,” said Bowden. However, for the first time two raffle ticket numbers were picked with no claimers (you had to be present to win). The 3rd attempt, drawn from the raffle ticket tumbler by Little Miss Chincoteague, elicited a squeal from the crowd. Jodi Stutzman of North Carolina held her winning ticket up high.
At the July 30 auction, 61 foals were sold including 12 buybacks — ponies that have owners but are sent back to the island to keep the herd replenished. Four buyback foals are descendants of Surfer Dude, one selling for $25,000 — the highest bid in the auction’s history. “His legacy is going to go on for a long time because of the buybacks and all he brought to it,” said Bowden, “bringing comfort to those that miss him.”
Adults may come to Chincoteague to share their childhood with their children and relive their own memories of when they first read the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague; now they can come to the island and remember when they first met Surfer Dude. He has already become a legend, joining the history of how ponies first appeared on Assateague Island. According to local folklore, a Spanish galleon shipwrecked just off the coast of Virginia and the horses inside swam to shore, beginning the island herd. Others say that farmers on Assateague brought their own ponies onto the island to avoid laws and taxation. Which is the real history? Only the ancestors of the island’s wild ponies know for sure and now the spirit of Surfer Dude runs among them.