Boy Scout Troop 290 of Ocracoke, North Carolina
Captain Marvin Howard
Captain Marvin Howard retired from the military and settled on Ocracoke Island. He believed the young boys living on the island would benefit from joining the Boy Scouts of America. In 1956 he organized Troop 290. Besides young boys the island was also home to wild horses. Banker ponies, as they were called, descended from Spanish horses brought to the New World in the 1500s by European explorers and colonists. In the four hundred years since the first arrivals the horses adapted to the sandy barrier islands, surviving by eating tough marsh grasses and drinking what fresh, or sometimes brackish, water they could find. By the 1950s the horse numbered in the thousands up and down the North Carolina coast.
Catch a Wild Pony
Captain Howard saw the boys and the ponies as perfect matches. Troop 290 became the first mounted troop of the Boy Scouts of America in the whole country. In Ocracoke the ponies were owned by various residents and rounded up on July 4th – pony-penning day. The foals were sorted with their mamas and branded according to their owners. The boys had to pay a $50 fee for their pony, but they had no problem earning the money working for the fishermen on the island or other odd jobs. The whole community supported the scouts. Once the boy had his pony broke to ride he could join in the many community service projects, camping trips and other riding team activities.
Mr. Rudy Austin was a member of Captain Howard’s Troop 290 when he was a boy. In a 2001 interview with Mr. Austin, he shared his memories with me of training his wild horse, Diablo. Rudy and Diablo performed with the troop in the Buxton Pirate Jamboree every year. They had to take their ponies to Buxton by ferryboat, which is still how folks go from Ocracoke to anywhere else. Mr. Austin said they went on horseback camping and hunting trips, and as a service to the community they rode into the marshes and bogs to spray the area for mosquitoes.
Many boys trained their horses Indian style according to Mr. Austin. They led the pony out into the sound or ocean until it was deep enough the boy could float onto the pony’s back. The pony really could not buck in the water, but even if it could falling off in the water didn’t hurt. Once the pony was used to feeling the weight of a young boy on its back the two of them moved onto dry land.
Sidebar - A Horse or a Pony?
Are they horses or ponies? A pony is a small horse. The Banker Ponies are sometimes also called Banker Horses. Both terms are correct. Most Bankers are small horses, measuring under the 58 inches, which is the official maximum height of a pony. Over 58 inches and we classify it a horse. Whether we call it a horse or pony has nothing to do with the breed or age, just the size. A baby horse or pony is called a foal. Young horses and ponies are called fillies (females) and colts (males.)
Ocracoke Banker Ponies
Horses Ordered to be Removed from Islands
Sadly Troop 290 had only existed a few years when the NC State Legislature ordered the removal of the horses and other wild livestock from the islands. The numbers had become so large experts warned they would eat all the grass on the sand dunes and cause beach erosion.
Captain Marvin and other local citizens convinced the lawmakers to make an exception for the boys’ horses. Thanks to Captain Howard the Boy Scouts could keep their horses, but under the new law, the boys could no longer let their horses run free to graze. They had to keep them corralled to prevent them grazing among the dunes. This meant the ponies had to be fed grain and hay. Fewer boys were able to afford to care for the horses and the troop eventually disbanded.
“It was a fantastic boyhood,” says Mr. Rudy Austin, “We knew it then, but appreciate it even more looking back.”
National park Service Takes Over CAre of the Ponies
Since the 1960s the National Park Service of Cape Hatteras National Seashore continues to manage a small herd of the horses, which almost became extinct after Troop 290 disbanded. Those horses you can see today are the result of the work of Park Ranger Jim Henning and his wife starting in 1973 to study and preserve the herd. Today the park service keeps the horses on 180 fenced acres on the north end of the island. They are sheltered when weather dictates the need and their grazing is supplemented with hay. Visitors can see the horses from an observation deck just off highway twelve not far from the Hatteras – Ocracoke Ferry landing. Some of the horses are trained and rode by the park rangers to make their rounds.
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