Remembering Mr. Bob, an Ocracoke pony
“If such a
place there be, an island in the sun, where horses free as spindrift
By Pat Garber
Hennings, from her 1985 book “Conquistadore’s Legacy: The
Horses of Ocracoke.”
Thirty-three years ago, on the island of Ocracoke, a Banker pony mare
retreated into the marsh grasses along the Pamlico Sound to deliver her
foal. The foal, a brown and white pinto colt, clambered to his feet,
following his mother as she rejoined the other ponies in her band. The
leader of the pony band, a handsome chestnut stallion, was his father
and led the ponies as they sought out the tough but tasty spartina
grasses that made up their diet and dug down into the ground for fresh
On nice days, the colt frolicked in the waters of the sound with other
colts and fillies, and when storms rolled in, he hunkered down at the
dunes, protected by the other members of the band. If the
rose in hurricanes, he and the other ponies climbed to the top
the dunes to escape.
ponies lived as if they were wild, but they were in fact overseen by
the National Park Service, and the lands they roamed were part of the
Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
One of the park rangers, Jim Hennings, and his wife, Jeanetta, took a
special interest in them. They knew the stallion as Jim and the mare as
Old Paint, and they named the new colt Mr. Bob.
As he grew older, Mr. Bob proved to be a wise and gentle pony, so Jim
Hennings decided to train him to work for the Park Service. Ranger Judy
Lawson recalls how gentle he was and how good he was with the kids. In
particular, she remembers one day when she was helping with his
training and someone forgot to cinch up his saddle.
“I got on and I went full circle,” she said, “and he didn’t get upset
During the summers of 1978-1980, Mr. Bob was ridden by Alice
Rosazza in the living history programs Jim Hennings organized for
visitors to the Park. In 1981, when newly hired park ranger Howard
Bennink asked to use a horse to patrol the beach, Mr. Bob became the
first horse in Ocracoke’s National Park Service Beach Patrol.
Howard, now a teacher at Ocracoke School, rode Mr. Bob along the beach
from the Pony Pens to the Airport and back and used him to patrol the
parking lots during the Ocracoke Crab Festival and July 4
celebrations. He also rode him in several of the Fourth of July parades
during the 1990s, and more recently Mr. Bob had been one of the ponies
on exhibit at the Ocracoke Museum’s special July 4 ceremony.
“Bob was a good boy,” recalled Howard, but “he had a bad egg brother --
Owen K. He also had a full sister called South Wind.”
No one knows how or when the ponies first came to Ocracoke,
although there are a number of theories. Legend has it that the
original ponies were brought over on Spanish ships in the 16th century.
The ships may have wrecked on treacherous shoals, or the Spaniards may
have deliberately released the ponies when they prepared to return to
One explanation is that Sir Richard Grenville, leading an
expedition from England in 1585, stopped at a Spanish island to pick up
supplies and stock, including some of the Spanish ponies, on his way to
Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His ship ran aground in Ocracoke
Inlet, and some of the ponies were released to lighten the load so the
ship could break free.
However they may have gotten here, there is little doubt that
they are of Spanish origin. They still have the characteristics of the
small, hardy horses bred by the Moors, combining their Iberian stock
with North African Barbs and Arabians. They are really small horses
rather than ponies, with short backs (having one fewer lumbar vertebra
than other horses), short legs, and a sloping croup. They are
even-tempered, intelligent, and tough.
When Ocracoke was settled by the English, they began riding the ponies
and using them for plowing gardens, pulling carts, and hauling freight.
When the U.S. Life-Saving Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard, was
established in the 19th century, the Ocracoke ponies were used for
patrolling the beaches and rescuing shipwreck victims. The main herds,
however, continued to run free.
There was a round-up, or pony-penning, every year on the Fourth of
July. Islanders would start at the far end of the island, on horseback,
herding the bands of ponies toward the village. There would be several
hundred horses, and as the stallions from the various bands were
bunched together, they would sometimes fight. People from the village
would gather around to watch, and there was a festive air on the
island, with lemonade, ice cream, and other treats.
Several areas were used, over the years, for penning the ponies. One
was in front of the Island Inn, one at Windmill Point, one near Sam
Jones’ Castle, and one at the cow pens, the present-day pony pen.
There, the ponies were branded, gelded, and broken. Some were separated
to be used in the village or sold on the mainland, and the rest were
turned loose to run free again.
the 1950s, Captain Marvin Howard, retired from the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, turned Ocracoke’s Boy Scouts into the only mounted scout
troop in the country. Those boys who did not already have ponies caught
and broke one, and they all learned to ride in formation. A number of
native Ocracokers today have fond memories of their scouting days, when
they went on camping trips, rode in parades, and entered races at the
Pirate’s Jamboree in Buxton. According to Howard Bennink, Mr.Bob is the
grandson of the pony James Barrie Gaskill rode in the Boy Scouts.
After the highway was built, it became unsafe for the ponies
roam free, and for a while their fate was undetermined. In 1967, the
National Park Service agreed, in response to public sentiment, to take
over their care, protecting them as a cultural resource. They fenced a
180-acre area near the center of the island which included salt marsh,
sound, and high ground, and it was here that Mr. Bob was born.
When Jim Hennings arrived, he had a barn and more corrals built near
the pony pen. Following Jim Hennings, park ranger Bill Caswell oversaw
the Ocracoke ponies for a number of years. More buildings and corrals
were added, and the feeding of hay and grain became a daily routine.
Today the Park Service has a “wrangler,” Laura Michaels, whose main job
is seeing to the needs of the ponies. She loves the ponies and the work
she does with them.
Gone, however, are the idyllic days of freedom expressed by
Jeanetta Hennings’ poem.
In 2003, Hurricane Isabel destroyed the pony barn and most of the
fences and sanded in part of the pasture lands. When the Park Service
rebuilt, it enclosed only 100 acres. Storms continually tore out the
fencing that allowed the ponies to go into Pamlico Sound, so the
fencing was moved so that the ponies no longer have access to the
sound. For a number of reasons, including health issues, many of the
ponies are kept in pens close to the barn where they can be more
closely supervised. Only a few of the ponies roam freely.
The size of the herd has declined over the last few years,
there are, as of September, 2010, only 15 Ocracoke ponies left.
In an effort to increase the herd and maintain its Banker bloodlines,
the National Park Service borrowed two Shackleford Banks stallions to
breed with the Ocracoke mares.
The plan proved successful in March of this year when Spirit, an
Ocracoke pony mare, had a foal, called Paloma, by one of the stallions.
The rangers are waiting now to see if two other pony mares have been
bred. Also, recently, the National Park Service adopted two young
Shackleford mares, in hopes of breeding them to an Ocracoke stallion.
Mr. Bob’s health began failing as he grew older, though he
rallied several times. He had recently lived in what Laura calls the
“geriatric section” of the pony pens, getting food supplements and
Finally, on Sept. 8, he died peacefully.
His life spanned 33 years of change, both on the island and in National
Park Service policies. He is remembered with fondness and respect.
Garber worked with the ponies as a Volunteer in the Park, during the
1990s, and she rode Rondo, another Ocracoke pony, alongside Mr. Bob in
the Fourth of July parades. She is the author of several books about
Ocracoke, including a children’s book called "Little Sea Horse and the
Story of the Ocracoke Ponies," published by the Ocracoke Preservation
Society and available at island shops and online.)