This past weekend, I learned what happens when someone attempts to hit a horse in the face with a beach bag.
Allow me to explain. My friend and I took a camping trip to Assateague Island, a 37-mile barrier island off the coast of Maryland that’s home to a population of a wild ponies.
Most researchers agree that they made their way to the shores back in the 1600s when a Spanish galleon ship carrying them sunk off the coast. They’ve been wandering the beaches freely ever since.
Well that snapshot of peace and tranquility was shattered just minutes later when the horses encountered a group of tourists a few yards up the beach – an episode that began with a man shouting “GET THE COOLERS!!” at the top of his lungs and later involved another man staging a rescue mission for a beach chair.
But before we get into that mess, let’s get one thing straight: These ponies may be accustomed to humans, but they’re still largely untamed, and therefore unpredictable. Like many wild animals, they bite and kick – and there are countless signs and warnings posted all over the island saying as much.
In fact, if there’s one thing Assateague Island National Seashore wants you to know, it’s that you shouldn’t harass the horses – not even when one saunters up to your blanket, sticks his head into your beach bag and fishes out a bottle of sunscreen with his mouth.
Because that was how this whole thing started. And when the horse chewed the tube briefly then spit it at the feet of its owner, a middle-aged woman who couldn’t decide if she was honored or disgusted, it was like someone rang the bell for 9 rounds of pony vs. people.
“Bullshit,” the horse seemed to say to her. “I can’t eat that!”
Back into the bag he went – this time emerging with a gallon-sized Ziploc bag of baby wipes and plastic cutlery. He shook it vigorously before deciding that it, too, was of little use.
I have no way of knowing what he was thinking – but judging by his next move it seemed to be, “How many beach chairs do I need to lick before you people give me something to eat?”
The owner of those chairs, a woman who is evidently very attached to her lawn furniture, watched in horror and screamed, “THE CHAIRS! THE CHAIRS!!”
“Is this a radio?” the horse seemed to replied. “I’m going to step on it.”
Sensing that the situation was spiraling out of control, I did a logical thing and got the hell out of there. If you think anyone followed my lead in moving further up the beach, you would be mistaken. The licking of the beach chairs only served to draw a larger crowd.
“The horses are too close,” one woman said as she inched closer to them, camera in hand.
“You have to make noise to scare them away,” another suggested. “Just stomp your feet.”
A man standing nearby loosely interpreted that suggestion as “Put your flip flops on your hands and clap them in close proximity to the horse’s eyes.”
“BOO!“ The woman added.
When those actions failed to restore order, the man picked up a beach bag and swung it around his head like a propeller, nearly catching the horse in the neck. A second man, sensing this might be his best chance for escape, snatched his beach chair from between two horses and carried it to safety to the dunes.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, an unleashed Labrador Retriever broke free of its owner’s grasp and charged the horses. The dog circled behind the stallion, barking wildly, while the owner followed close behind, barking just as loudly.
But the dog, unlike the humans, quickly realized that he was outmatched. He retreated to his blanket in a matter of seconds, his owner collapsing alongside him in the sand, sobbing and stroking his back, perhaps wondering what she could have done differently to prevent this awful ordeal. I sincerely doubt that using a leash crossed her mind.
The story ends well – which is to say that the horses grew bored and walked back in the direction from which they came. I’d like to think that they made their way to the marsh in peace before becoming boxed in by yet another a pack of SUVs whose owners wanted to demonstrate to their children how to disrespect nature, snarl traffic and risk bodily injury all at the same time.
It’s true that most people don’t know how to behave around wild horses. And that’s fair – except that if you set foot on Assateague Island, they tell you. Repeatedly. Explicitly.
And while the signs say nothing about not swinging a beach bag like a mace or using your flip flops as cymbals, I think we can all deduce that you should not do those things either.
Nature is worthy of our respect.
Maybe some of us need a good kick to remember that.
Bonus Vine: Ponies stroll the beach… minutes before they annihilated the beach chairs. If you’re an email subscriber, click here to see the video.
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*Events are reordered for the sake of storytelling.