Wild Horses

Eric and Anna know they have what it takes to train and sell the wild horse. But should they?
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Fiction by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Illustrations by Adam Gustavson

“Here he comes,” Eric said to his sister.

Anna’s eyes weren’t on the arena but looking down at the booklet detailing the pedigrees of the horses being auctioned today.

“You know I want a filly,” said Anna.

“Just look, OK?”

Anna put down the booklet to watch the shaggy, golden pony as he was led around the arena.

“He’s a beauty,” she admitted.

“He’s the one!” said her brother.

“Not unless I say so too,” Anna said. “We both have to agree, remember?”

“I remember,” Eric muttered, still watching the spunky little pony which before today had never been touched by human hands.

It was early on a July morning and Eric and Anna were at the annual pony penning in Chincoteague, an island off the coast of Virginia. The tradition had started in 1925, but the horses themselves — a group of wild ponies that lived on the nearby island of Assateague — went back way further.

Legend had it that they were descended from a group of Spanish ponies on their way to the mines in Peru. A storm blew the ship into a reef, cracking open the hull. Despite the waves and wind, the ponies thrashed their way to the beaches of Assateague. The island was uninhabited, so the ponies learned to live in the wild.

Some people thought this was just a story, and that the ponies had escaped from early colonists. But whatever their origin, the ponies had been running free for hundreds of years.

When they were little, Eric and Anna loved to watch the horses being herded across the channel. Once ashore, the ponies snorted and shook the water from their bodies.

Next came the parade, with scores of still-wet ponies clomping down Main Street. But exciting as all that was, the twins had skipped it this year and were here just for the auction.

The golden pony was led away, and several other horses had their turn in the arena. Eric didn’t think any of them compared to the golden one, until he saw her: the filly that made Anna gasp.

Her creamy coat was dappled with dark spots, and her mane and tail were the color of hot chocolate. As she pranced around the ring, Eric could almost feel her joyful spirit.

“I want her,” Anna said. “She’s the one.”

Eric looked again at the filly, and it seemed that her black, shining eyes were staring straight into his. “You’re right,” he said.

Immediately Anna started bidding. At first, there were two other bidders but one dropped out, and soon the other did too.

After the auction ended, they met their mom, who had come with a horse trailer to get the filly home.

“She looks feisty,” Mom said. “Do you really think you can train her?”

“I know we can,” said Eric.

“That’s why we bought her,” Anna added. “To train her and then sell her.”

“I know,” Mom said. “And your father and I are just so grateful that you want to help.”

Just as they were leaving, Eric nudged Anna. “Look, those are the buybacks.”

Buybacks were the ponies that had been bought and returned to the wild, to replenish the herd.

Anna just shook her head. “What a waste,” she said. “Besides, we need the money too badly to ever do that.”

Eric and Anna had horses in their blood. Their dad trained racehorses, and their mom ran a small riding academy. But several months ago, Dad had been thrown and he was still in rehab; the whole family was feeling the pinch. So Eric and Anna had decided to pool the money they’d earned from their afterschool and summer jobs to buy one of the wild horses. They were confident they could train and resell it for a profit — lots of people were eager to own one of the fabled ponies of Assateague.

The next day, Eric and Anna rose early and got to work training the filly, whom they called Diamond, for the shape of the marking on her forehead.

At first, Diamond balked at the bridle, the bit, the saddle and the stirrups. But they found that she loved carrots, apples and most of all, the slightly stale peppermint balls left over from Christmas.

Soon Diamond was able to tolerate being tacked up. And then there was the memorable day that she let Anna ride her all the way around the ring at their mom’s academy. Eric had groomed her, and her dappled coat was smooth and shiny.

“Someone’s going to snap her right up,” Anna said as she dismounted. “We can sell her for $2,000, or maybe even more.”

Eric said nothing. His sister was right — selling Diamond was the whole reason they had bought her. And yet … he thought of the buybacks he’d seen after the auction and for a second, he wished that Diamond could be among them. But that was ridiculous.

The training continued well into the fall.

Dad had come home but was still using a cane, so he couldn’t work. Then Mom found a possible buyer for Diamond: Ms. Wycoff, from the academy.

On a gray November day, Mom invited her over to watch Diamond in the ring. Diamond went through her paces: walk, trot, canter, gallop. Ms. Wycoff was impressed.

“You’d never know she’d been born wild!” she said admiringly.

Mom and Anna smiled, but Eric felt sick. Diamond had been born wild — that was part of her essence. And they had taken it from her.

Finally, Ms. Wycoff left, and Mom went inside. Anna was still talking about the price. Mom thought they could ask $2,000 but Anna thought they should start at $2,200.

“What do you think?” she asked Eric.

“I think we should take her back to Assateague, where she belongs.”


“I know we tamed her and trained her. But maybe we ruined her too.” He stroked Diamond’s spotted muzzle and she looked at him with her bright black eyes. Then Eric went upstairs to his room, where he stayed all night.

In the morning, he was half asleep when Anna came in and sat on the foot of his bed.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “I talked to Mom and she agrees. What I mean is … you’re right. Diamond shouldn’t belong to Ms. Wycoff, or to us, or to anyone else. She should belong to herself. So the only thing to do is–”

“I know what to do,” Eric said. He sat up and looped his arm around his sister’s shoulder. “I’m just glad you do too.”

And in his mind’s eye he could see Diamond running wild, proud — and free.

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