HOULTON, Maine — It was a bit of the Wild West in northern Maine Tuesday morning, when a herd of 25 ponies broke loose from their pasture on Route 1 on the Houlton-Littleton town line and hit the open road.
The only person more surprised than the drivers who came across the mini-stampede was their owner, Jessica York.
“It was actually quite out of character for them,” York said Tuesday afternoon. “With this breed, even if they do get out it’s just to get to the next hay bale to eat, which is why we have them.”
York has Norwegian Fjord horses and Caspian horses, which she uses in youth programs on her Dowery Farm for area school children.
“It’s why we have the Norwegian Fjords, especially,” she said. “They are really calm and safe for the kids.”
But something was in the air Tuesday morning, and York suspects it may have been a combination of equine pique and peckishness.
Norwegian Fjords, she said, like to eat and are not known for knowing when to say when.
“The Norwegians tend to get obese if you give them a round bale of hay, and they have no way to work it off,” she said. “I was trying to let them go five to six hours without their head stuck in a bale.”
But her attempts at enforced dietary restraint resulted in an act of rebellion.
“These horses are quite intelligent and have quite the sense of justice,” York said. “They could see the bale of hay, and they were pretty mad at me.”
Just before 9 a.m. the herd rushed the fence, broke through and went on what York described as a 20-minute jog toward Littleton and back.
“That was pretty rare,” she said. “Usually you need a stick of dynamite to move them.”
York was inside her home at the start of the breakout and rushed right out, fearing the combination of horses and Route 1 traffic.
Turns out, she did not have much to worry about.
“They ran up to the next driveway, did a detour, ran up to another driveway, did a detour and then to a driveway on the other side of the road,” she said. “Then they turned around and jogged right back into the pasture where they broke the fence.”
Twenty-five horses trotting up the road certainly was the last thing Crystal Damboise of Presque Isle expected to see on her morning commute Tuesday.
Damboise, an ophthalmologist technician for Vision Care of Maine in Presque Isle, was traveling with several co-workers to their clinic in Houlton when they spotted what they first thought were cows in the road coming right at them.
“As we got closer, we realized it was a herd of ponies,” she said. “They looked like they were on a mission, [and] there were a lot of them.”
Damboise said they slowed the vehicle, and the horses trotted right past them, picking up speed as they went.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, please don’t let anyone hit the ponies,’” she said.
Though there was light traffic in both lanes, the horses caused no vehicle mishaps or accidents.
“I travel that road twice a week,” Damboise said. “I am ready to see moose, but seeing a herd of horses was pretty random.”
She was able to capture part of the stampede on video but did not get York in the video, much to the horse woman’s relief.
“Ever since this really cold weather started, I’ve been keeping my ducks in the mudroom,” York said. “So when I ran out to go catch the horses, I grabbed my farm vest that is covered in duck poop.”
York said she was able to catch up with the older horses as the group was making its way back to her farm.
“That’s the funny part: Even the old ladies of my herd went out,” she said. “They are 19 and 21, and I was like, ‘What are you thinking?’ If you can’t move the younger ones with dynamite, you can’t move the old ones with a [front-end] loader.”
York speculated the laid back Norwegian Fjords could have sucummbed to peer pressure from the more adventurous Caspian horses, a breed re-discovered in Iran after long believed to be extinct.
“The Caspians definitely have minds of their own,” she said.
For now, the horses are safely back home, the fence repaired and York is hoping they got their fill of hoofing it down the road for a while.