Maizie Allen and Legend in Española, New Mexico, September 2021
Maizie Allen and Legend in Española, New Mexico, September 2021
Maizie Allen and Legend in Española, New Mexico, September 2021 (Photo: Mattie Allen)

The Last Ride of Legend, a Pony Who Lived Up to His Name

Born on an island off the coast of Virginia, home to a wild herd that inspired the classic children’s novel ‘Misty of Chincoteague,’ this gentle, blue-eyed gelding enjoyed an adventurous life with a family in New Mexico. After his death, a mother and daughter went on a mission: to lay him to rest amid the sand and the waves.

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A sickle of moon hung in the black Atlantic sky as the four of us began the mile-long walk to the beach. It was shortly before 5 A.M. on the southern reaches of Assateague Island, off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, but already a hundred people or more were chasing the cones of their cell-phone lights across the marshes and dunes of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Farther south, nearly 15,000 more had gathered in a shorefront parking lot. Blades of grass waved spookily in the glow.

The humidity was like it always is here in summer—hateful—and the mosquitos had their feast. I walked with Mattie Allen, communications director of an animal shelter and free clinic in Española, New Mexico, and noticed how her curly auburn hair had become a nebula that blotted out the stars. The humidity hairdo had become a running joke, a novelty that underscored how far she and her 13-year-old daughter, Maizie, had traveled to be here. My own daughter, Evie, who is also 13, fell in with Maizie, the two new BFFs hitting it off over middle school and pressures to wear makeup.

Mattie and Maizie, who has her mother’s hair and talks rapid fire, are both horse people, and they had invited Evie and me to join them for the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim, a weeklong festival held every July on the island of Chincoteague, a splotch of sand, water, and coastal vegetation that sits just beyond waterways with names like Mosquito Creek and Mud Bay Gut, three miles off the Virginia portion of Delmarva, the rural tristate peninsula that divides the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic.

Chincoteague, which has an average elevation of about 21 inches, is protected from the open ocean by Assateague, a 37-mile-long barrier island that spans the Maryland-Virginia line. Unlike Chincoteague’s 3,000-person urban center—which is also called Chincoteague and is known for hotels, vintage beach-house rentals, ice cream shops, and seafood restaurants—Assateague is feral, an undeveloped mix of windswept terrain, all of it protected as parkland in one form or another, mostly by the federal government. It’s on Assateague where you’ll find the local celebrities: a fabled herd of wild, salt-grass-eating ponies.

How they got there is a mystery. The more mundane theories have suggested that pirates or early English settlers left them on the island to forage. The most fantastic and repeated tale holds that, centuries ago, a Spanish ship carrying horses between Spain and its New World colonies wrecked off the coast, and the animals swam ashore and survived. With only nutrient-poor marsh grass to fill their bellies, the horses grew smaller over the generations until they became ponies, meaning a horse that’s less than 14.2 hands tall—about four foot nine. (Some ponies are genetically different from horses, but these are not; they’re just small.)

As it turns out, that shipwreck tale, long dismissed as a myth, might be true. Archeologists know of at least two Spanish ships buried in the seafloor off the coast of Assateague. And this July, a researcher at the University of Florida published a study that offered DNA evidence closely linking horses brought to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola from Spain in the 1500s to the ponies on Assateague.

However the animals came to be here, Chincoteaguers have been capturing them since the 1800s to use as their own, and since 1925, a posse of horsemen now known as the saltwater cowboys has run organized roundups. The ponies are excellent swimmers, and once a year, during “pony penning” week in July, the cowboys swim the herd across a quarter-mile channel from Assateague to Chincoteague, where they run through the streets, past adoring, gleeful crowds, to fairgrounds on the west side of the island. There, toward the end of the week, about 60 foals go up for auction before the cowboys swim the rest back to Assateague.

Doing all this keeps the herd size in check at around 150 ponies and, combined with proceeds from an annual carnival, raises nearly $800,000 for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which has owned and managed the herd for nearly 100 years.

For everyone else, the week is a chance to overdose on some seriously cute ponies.

Ponies grazing on the west side of Assateague Island
Ponies grazing on the west side of Assateague Island (Mattie Allen)

The great pony swim was still a few days away when Mattie, Maizie, Evie, and I set out on the hike. On that morning—“beach walk” day, as the Official 2022 Chincoteague Island Pony Swim Guide called it—the cowboys planned to run the herd south along Assateague’s sandy beaches to a holding pen, where they could rest, eat, and get a checkup. If we hiked a mile or so down Swan Cove Trail before dawn, we’d have the best seats in the house.

Mattie was surprised I’d never done this before. After all, I grew up an hour north of Chincoteague in the 1980s, but for me and my buddies who surfed off the coast of Assateague, the ponies were afterthoughts, nuisances or outright thieves who would steal your sandwich while you bobbed in the lineup. As far as diminutive wildlife went, I much preferred sightings of Assateague’s sika deer, which aren’t deer at all but little brown elk that stand two and a half feet tall.

The ponies are excellent swimmers, and once a year, during “pony penning” week in July, the saltwater cowboys swim the herd across a quarter-mile channel from Assateague to Chincoteague, where they run through the streets, past adoring, gleeful crowds.

For Mattie and Maizie, this trip to a buggy, muggy, eastern seaboard outpost was a dream. The Allens had rented a double kayak to look for ponies. They’d booked themselves on guided boat excursions to look for ponies. They were suckers for the “pony fries” at the carnival, and couldn’t wait to catch the free matinee of Misty, a feature film based on Marguerite Henry’s famous 1947 children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, which put the island on the map. Misty, a real horse who lived from 1946 to 1972, left her footprints on the sidewalk in front of the Island Theater when the movie premiered there in June 1961. The Allens didn’t miss that tourist attraction, either. If you said “pony,” they’d say, “Where?”

But this trip was deeply personal, too. Maizie spent the bulk of her childhood with a Chincoteague gelding named Legend, who had a buckskin coat and unusual piercing blue eyes. She had grown into a teenager with him as her companion, learning how to be brave and confident, riding fast on trails throughout New Mexico and Colorado. She spent hours braiding Legend’s long, black mane and weaving flowers into her handiwork, content just to hear him chew and sigh. He loved her attention and tolerated a few antics, too. One time she dressed him up like a snail, complete with googly eyestalks, and then climbed into the saddle wearing a tulle skirt and wings. She looked like a woodland fairy.

“It was never just me or him,” Maizie would say. “It was always we and us.”

The sky turned sepia by the time we got to the beach. A handful of U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers had set up cones and reminded the crowd to stay behind them. A line of sanderlings darted around the surging surf that brought them a sushi train of crabs and worms. Evie and I sat near tufts of American beach grass, scanning the distance for movement. Maizie wandered off.

“She doesn’t want to cry in front of other people,” Mattie explained.

She gave Maizie a moment. Then she followed her toward the edge of the continent and hugged her, a mother helping her child shoulder a weight as fathomless as the sea.

Maizie and Mattie, paddling for ponies
Maizie and Mattie, paddling for ponies (Mattie Allen)

Shadows began shifting to the north shortly before 7 A.M. The ponies were on the move, and a dark patch hanging in the haze slowly sharpened into more definite forms. Legs. Heads. There was an eerie unfamiliarity to it all, like a horde was emerging out of the steppe—if ancient warriors wore trucker hats.

The ponies trotted by in a seething mass of musk, muscle, and hair. The wide-eyed foals stuck close to their dams. A yearling named Norm bolted for the surf. The 40 or so cowboys, with their shouts and whips in the air, kept the ponies mostly contained as they herded them south. They passed us in less than a minute, but the buzz from being so close to that much wild animal energy crackled through the crowd for a while.

“Look at this!” Maizie exclaimed, pointing out a tiny hoofprint, no bigger than a plum, in the wet sand.

“Aw!” Mattie gushed, taking a picture.

Maizie was seven when Legend came into their lives on April 25, 2016, but by then she’d been riding long enough that she couldn’t really remember a time when she wasn’t around horses. Mattie, who grew up outside Cleveland, had been riding since second grade. Together, they’ve worked as extras in horsey movies like News of the World and Godless. “Any time you see a person in Hostiles on a white horse, it’s me,” Mattie said.

At the time Legend arrived, the family was still mourning the loss of Mattie’s favorite horse, Jesse, who Mattie had been forced to have euthanized inside a trailer, because Jesse was so big that it would have been impossible to load him inside for burial after he was gone. The moment the drugs entered his veins, Jesse whipped his head around to make eye contact with Mattie as he crumpled to the floor. “It was a super traumatic thing for us all,” Mattie said. “He was my unicorn, my horse of a lifetime.”

Jesse’s death opened a spot for a new horse on the family’s one-acre farm, which sits in the southern part of Española, a short drive from New Mexico’s capital of Santa Fe, near 6,092-foot Black Mesa. Mattie was on Facebook one day when her phone blew up. Every message said the same thing: There’s a pony for sale. You have to get it.

One friend who called was an Albuquerque-based riding instructor named Julie Luzicka, who’d owned Legend for about ten years, since 2007, when one of his original owners, Laura Celmins, had brought him to Luzicka’s Heart Lane Farm in Corrales, a suburb north of Albuquerque.

Celmins, who is now 39 and living in Chicago, grew up in rural Maryland and had won Legend at a 4-H contest in Queen Anne’s County, on the state’s Eastern Shore, just before she turned 11, at a time when her parents were splitting up. A horse club in southern Maryland had bought the pony originally, for $375, when some members took him on as a sort of group project.

They named him Legend of Chincoteague. He’d been sired by a half Arabian released into the herd to broaden the gene pool. His mother was a descendent of Watch Eyes, a “dependable pony” owned by Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe, a real person who appeared as a central character in Misty of Chincoteague.

“Then, I don’t know what happened, but when he was offered up as this prize pony, he hadn’t had a lot of training,” Celmins told me. He didn’t steer well or stop well. “I spent a lot of time stuck on him with his head in a corner.”

Legend came west in the summer of 1996, when Celmins moved with her mother, Nancy, to Tucson, Arizona. She found a trainer, Legend’s manners improved dramatically, and when Laura was 13, she rode with him on desert trails and entered him in competitions—in what’s known as a “three-day event,” a contest that involves dressage, cross-country, and show jumping.

Eventually, Celmins went to pharmacy school at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, while Legend took clients on camping trips in southern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest as part of her grandparents’ outfitting business. “I felt like it was kind of a shame that we had this very well-trained pony who was out in the wilderness and not doing anything with kids,” she said. So Celmins found Luzicka, and Luzicka agreed to adopt him.

“I never stopped thinking about him,” Celmins told me. To this day she keeps a picture of Legend on her desk.

A colorful house on the post-swim route
A colorful house on the post-swim route (Mattie Allen)

Luzicka says that Legend, who entered shows under the fancier name Once Upon a Time, was modestly successful in lower-level competitions, but he was bombproof as a learning pony for kids, especially timid kids. He didn’t buck or spook or catapult anyone over his ears. Beginners had fun and their confidence grew.

“There is an overarching theme of little girls and ponies and how they teach you big-kid lessons,” says Hannah Wiggins, 24, whose parents leased Legend from Luzicka when she was nine or ten. “They teach you how to get back on when you fall off, how to get on when you’re scared, and how to be a good sport. You’re asking this big beast to jump over something or to start galloping, and you put a lot of trust in this animal.”

Luzicka eventually sold Legend to another New Mexican woman who wanted him as her son’s first pony. After a year or so, the son lost interest, so Legend was put up for sale again. That’s when Mattie’s phone started ringing.

Mattie and Maizie piled into the family’s Dodge truck and made the 95-mile drive south to a show barn in the South Valley, a horsey part of Albuquerque that borders the Rio Grande, where Legend had been stabled. She brought along her horse trailer, “just in case.” When they arrived, Maizie immediately fell in love with Legend’s eyes and climbed aboard for a ride. When she got off, she was beaming. Legend pressed his forehead into her chest and closed his eyes.

“There was this instant love between them,” Mattie recalls.

“I was ecstatic,” Maizie said. “He was just, like, the sweetest thing.”

Mattie bought him for $1,000 on the spot, without doing any due diligence about his background or health records. No one really knew how old Legend was, but the deepening hollows above his eyes suggested that he wasn’t young. His body seemed hale, though, and soon he and Maizie were bounding together into the Chama River and on long snowy trail rides to Red Lake in Colorado. When Maizie entered Legend in shows in Santa Fe, other riders would often approach to ask if the horse she had was Legend, the Legend, the one who had taught them to ride during his years with Luzicka.

Legend clearly loved water, and sometimes he would try to join animals he saw moving in the distance across a vast expanse of grass. “I always thought he was looking for his herd,” Maizie said. “I thought maybe we should take him back to Chincoteague.”

Maizie, who had struggled with self-confidence, now felt it coming back as she blossomed into an ambitious, caring tween. Soon she was working with Mattie at the shelter’s clinic, a free spay-neuter operation and high-stress ER where some horrifically injured and sick animals end up. Whenever something bothered her—a bad dance lesson, a bad test, a sick relative—she’d sit with Legend and braid his mane. It wasn’t until Maizie threw a birthday celebration for her pony, complete with carrot cake inside the house, that a social media post about the party indirectly led to the discovery of what everyone at the time thought was Legend’s birth month: May 1985. According to Celmins, however, they were off by three years—it was really in April 1988. Legend was 29.

Horses live 25 to 30 years on average, but ponies tend to live longer. Even so, Legend was up there. As he aged, he seemed to remember vestiges of his past. He clearly loved water, and sometimes he would try to join other animals he saw moving in the distance across a vast expanse of grass. That’s an odd move for a prey species.

“I always thought he was looking for his herd,” Maizie told me. “I thought maybe we should take him back to Chincoteague.”

The saltwater cowboys herding ponies on Assateague
The saltwater cowboys herding ponies on Assateague (Mattie Allen)

The morning after the beach walk, the ponies rested in their southern pen while veterinarians gave them health checks in preparation for swimming the next day. There are no records that clearly explain how the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company came to own and care for the ponies, but it’s been that way for nearly a century, after two fires destroyed the downtown in the early 1920s. Locals came up with the idea of auctioning off foals as a way to buy firefighting equipment. The average price for a pony has ballooned from a few hundred bucks in the 1980s to more than $7,000 today.

Over the years, the pony operation has grown extensively. These days the saltwater cowboys round up the herd three times a year to microchip and vaccinate everybody, and also to check on who is pregnant and who has died. Not all of the island’s ponies get this level of care, though. Most of Assateague Island—22 miles, or about 60 percent of the island’s length—lies to the north, in Maryland. Wild ponies live there, too, but other than getting poked with contraceptive darts fired by National Park Service specialists from time to time, that herd is pretty much on its own. To prevent disease, the fire department maintains a fence that runs across the entire island, west to east, and out into the ocean to keep the herds apart.

Chincoteague has plenty going for it—access to great beaches and even better oysters, for starters—but the ponies are crucial to its lure as a tourist destination. “If the ponies were gone, the whole town would be bankrupt,” says Denise Bowden, a sixth-generation Chincoteaguer and spokesperson for the fire department. “There are 150 animals over there, eating grass and not even looking up at you, and they have no idea that they control the whole economy of this island.”

At the holding pen, a small crowd had gathered to view the entirety of the Chincoteague herd, which, according to the permit managed by Fish and Wildlife, has to remain capped at 150. There isn’t enough grass to sustain more than that, and it’s so salty that the ponies have to drink enormous amounts of water. As a result, their bellies always look bloated.

“There’s Beach Boy!” said a girl glistening with bug spray, pointing to a black-and-white stallion. His rival, Riptide, strutted around his mares like an equine Fabio with a flowing, flaxen mane.

“So studly,” Mattie cooed.

The Allens spent the rest of the day hiking around Assateague, where they found hoofprints and strands of mane hair in the sand. Then they braved the long lines at the Island Creamery to try “pony tracks” ice cream. Evie and I explored the mainland, looking for a set of rotting ferry docks near Greenbackville, where boats from Chincoteague would unload oysters, people, and mail before the causeway was built in the 1920s. Today dozens and dozens of tacky billboards line one side of the road. Off to the other side, you see nothing but grass.

Ponies grazing before starting the swim
Ponies grazing before starting the swim (Mattie Allen)

Maizie wasn’t feeling well, so when Evie and I returned to the carnival grounds, we found Mattie standing alone next to a rearing sculpture of Surfer Dude, a chestnut heartthrob with eyes of different colors who had a band of 17 mares before he died in the winter of 2015 at age 23. Long tables lined the interior of a bingo hall; the rich scent of fried food lingered in the air. A Tilt-a-Whirl set up inside a building was still wet from an urgent hose-down, a fairly common occurrence at a carnival known for oyster sandwiches.

I followed Mattie over to the information booth, where Bowden, a firefighter for 30 years, was using the carnival’s PA system to tell a kid to get off his skateboard. Mattie handed her a package heavily sealed in foil and cling wrap. Words scrawled in marker on the exterior revealed the contents: Legend. Next to his name, Bowden drew a heart.

“Trust me when I tell you this is safe with me,” Bowden said, taking the package and looking nervous. “Now, I need you to go get in your car.”

A front had rolled in suddenly from the west; the bruised, herniated sky was twisting and churning. Workers scrambled to board up the bingo hall and food stalls. A band rushed to pack up the amps. Evie, Mattie, and I leaped into my car just as the heavens unloaded. Hot purple flashes of lightning strobed through the windshield.

Around 2020, Mattie had started to sense something wasn’t right with Legend. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep weight on him, despite feeding him enormous bowls of Equine Senior, a mix that helps older horses maintain a healthy metabolism. He didn’t shed properly, and he drank watering troughs dry. His hindquarters became wobbly, and he no longer liked Maizie to ride him bareback. Instead, she would walk him around the property, feeding him popsicles and his favorite food of all, watermelon. “Literally every morning, the first thing I did was open the window from my bed and see if Legie was still with us,” Mattie recalled.

Maizie had been dealing with a lot of death at the shelter, and as she became a teenager, she learned to honor her emotions without letting them cloud her judgment. Frankie, a feral cat with one eye and five extra toes that Maizie tamed herself, was dying after surviving for three years with fibrosarcoma, an aggressive cancer. Maizie knew how to let animals go, peacefully and gently, when it was time. But this was different. This was Legend.

So when Mattie came in one night, hysterical with tears because she’d found Legend lifeless by the gate—cold, not breathing, his mouth agape—the pain overwhelmed Maizie. She raced out to find him. Collapsing on the ground, she held his head in her arms and howled so wretchedly that Mattie worried someone might call the police.

“Come back to me,” she pleaded through sobs. “Come back to me!

“All of a sudden,” Mattie said, “Legend took this huge, raspy breath. My husband was standing right there and saw it all.” Within half an hour, he was up and following Maizie around. She stayed with him in the barn all night.

“It was insane,” Mattie said. “I have no idea what happened. People said, Do we need to check you into an institution somewhere? I said, You don’t understand, he was dead.”

Mattie, Legend, and Maizie in 2017, at a horse show in Santa Fe
Mattie, Legend, and Maizie in 2017, at a horse show in Santa Fe (Kevin Wiggins)
Maizie and Legend in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness
Maizie and Legend in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness (Mattie Allen)

Maizie enjoyed another couple of years with Legend before the end really came. She had been homeschooled all her life, but when it was time for seventh grade, she decided she wanted to go to a real middle school, meet new kids, and ride the bus. Mattie sensed how confident Maizie had become. She made friends quickly, got straight A’s, and impressed her teachers. Every night Maizie would take her homework out to the barn and sit with Legend, using a mounting block like a desk.

In early March 2022, things started to go downhill fast. Maizie was well into middle school by then, and Mattie was working from home. One day after Maizie left for school, Mattie found Legend leaning hard against Cita, Mattie’s mare, like he couldn’t stand on his own. Around 11 A.M., she found him lying in the hot sun, breathing heavily; Mattie was able to get him up briefly and into the shade.

Her best guess was that his kidneys were failing. She called a veterinarian friend, Andrea Harwell, who lives in Española and has experience putting down horses. “I’m feeling like this is probably coming to an end,” Mattie told her. “But I’m not going to freak out just yet.”

Maizie knew Legend wasn’t doing well, and Mattie had considered pulling her out of school early. Ultimately, she worried that doing so would make Maizie panic and draw unwanted attention, something that still made her uncomfortable. When Mattie picked her up that afternoon, she told her Legend wasn’t going to make it through the night. When Maizie stepped out of the vehicle at home, Legend saw her and stood for the first time in hours.

“I need to have a little time with him,” Maizie said.

The two of them walked to the hay barn, where Maizie got out her stuff to brush and braid his mane and tail. She fed him some of his favorite treats, then took him around the property, back to the playground she’d outgrown. “He stayed standing the whole time,” Mattie recalled. When Maizie finished braiding his tail, Legend lay down.

Legend was modestly successful in lower-level competitions, but he was bombproof as a learning pony for kids, especially timid kids. He didn’t buck or spook or catapult anyone over his ears. Beginners had fun and their confidence grew.

Mattie called Harwell, who immediately left her daughter’s birthday party for the Allen farm. She carried two syringes. One, xylazine, would sedate Legend. The other, pentobarbital, would stop his heart. 

“I don’t know if I’m making a decision too quickly,” Mattie told her. 

“You’re not,” Harwell said. “He’s not suffering now, but he’s going to.” 

Legend stood once again when Harwell arrived, and Maizie came outside to say goodbye. She thanked him for all their adventures, for all the things he’d taught her about herself. “I can’t be here when it happens,” she told her mom, “but can you be there for me?” She then went to her room and cried.

Mattie and Harwell led Legend to a place where the Allens often groomed him, so he wouldn’t sense anything unusual. He was so dehydrated and thin that Harwell struggled to find a vein. When she got the injection in, Legend hit the ground in an uncoordinated heap as his legs gave out, a horrible thing for an owner to watch. With Legend unconscious, Harwell gave him the second shot and he was gone, just shy of 34 years old. 

Maizie came out with her favorite pink-and-purple blanket and covered him. She didn’t stay long. She wanted to remember her pony the way he was. And after he was cremated, Mazie and Mattie flew east to take him home.

Maizie and Legend in 2016
Maizie and Legend in 2016 (Mattie Allen)
Steven Liscum with Legend’s ashes
Steven Liscum with Legend’s ashes (Mattie Allen)

The day of the pony swim arrived, and the humidity and heat had backed off to a moderately hateful level. By 8 A.M., I was standing on the fire-company dock near Pony Swim Lane, where the animals would emerge from the water. Dozens of boats lined the route, and a giant monitor was set up in a city park so that everyone could see. Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, came by and gave a quick speech. “Virginia is for pony lovers!” he said, riffing on the state’s motto. Hundreds if not thousands of people stood in marsh muck or floated on pool toys to get a better view. One of them, Bryan Langendoerfer, had come from Nashville, Tennessee, and had been standing in the mud since 3:30 A.M.

“My wife’s mom always wanted to do this,” he told me, his voice weakening, “but she passed away.”

Mattie and Maizie were determined to be as close as possible to the ponies as they entered the water, so they paddled their kayak to a spot between the boats and marsh grass. At around 9:15 or so, a coast guard boat set off an orange smoke flare signaling a dead slack tide, the still period between tides. The high tide had just come in, so the water was at its deepest. It was time.

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The cowboys began moving the herd into the water, and the crowd exploded. “Po-nies! Po-nies!” a woman in red sunglasses shouted next to me, clapping and bouncing on the balls of her feet. The animals snorted and huffed as they swam through the channel shockingly fast. Some of the cowboys followed alongside in boats, ready to help if a foal got in trouble. Other cowboys loaded their horses onto barges for the short crossing. One, Steven Liscum, a gentle man with a big smile who says “sir” and “ma’am” a lot, drew his horse, Ace, up close to Mattie and Mazie’s kayak. One of his saddle bags bulged with the package wrapped in plastic and foil. It was Legend. Bowden had arranged for him to take the remains across the channel on a final swim with the herd. He’d told Mattie and Maizie earlier that it was an honor to do it, and they burst into tears.

The parade to the fairgrounds went by in a blur. I hopped into a fire-company truck and drove ahead of the cowboys and the herd, which followed right behind us. We turned down Beebe Road. Signs hung from houses saying: “We ♥ ponies!” and “We ♥ saltwater cowboys!” Every now and then, a foal would break out of the herd and make a run for it, dashing through yards, up driveways, along fences, and over flower beds until a cowboy gave chase and brought it back into the fold. The crowd beamed pure pleasure, as if nothing could be more joyful than this, not even a parade of a thousand kittens.

The ponies mid-swim
The ponies mid-swim (Mattie Allen)

I saw Mattie and Maizie one last time a few days later, after the auction, when we went out for crab cakes. Sixty-three foals had sold for a record $450,000 that day. Ten of them were “buybacks,” ponies with desirable genes that are sold but returned to Assateague to replenish the herd and live out their days wild and free. One buyback went for $32,000, a black pinto filly sired by Beach Boy, a descendent of Misty.

I’d wondered if the Allens might buy another pony, but they didn’t, even though Mattie had asked for a quote on what it would cost to ship one back to Española. Mattie and a friend bought Maizie 80 raffle tickets for a pony the fire company was raffling off, but she didn’t win. No matter. Maizie was already hatching a plan to raise money for her own buyback next summer.

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On that final day, Mattie and Maizie paddled their kayak from Chincoteague to Assateague, across mirror-black water dotted with moon jellies. Between them sat a galvanized metal box with the ashes Liscum had returned. They found a spot offshore, and when the slack tide started running again, they released Legend into the water. They didn’t speak. They watched as the ashes swirled and spread like ancient continents.

Maizie looked up. A small beach gave way to an expanse of salt grass and low trees. It reminded her of the grasslands she always believed Legend had never forgotten. They paddled over there, ground the hull into the sand, and hiked over a small rise. Hoofprints dotted the sand, and there, close to shore, lay Legend’s favorite food, a piece of watermelon. Maizie found an impression where a pony had bedded down.

“He’s home now,” Maizie said, and she thanked Legend for showing her the way.

With Legend back where he belonged, and with nothing else to do, Mattie and Maizie stripped down and swam in the warm, murky water, the salt tickling their skin. Then they floated on their backs together, a mom and a daughter weightless and free under the warmth of an endless summer sky.