Saving wild horses, one book at a time

Lake Placid girl writes book about wild horses of Assateague Island

Emma Hubbard poses with her book, “Let’s Keep Assateague Wild,” on Tuesday, Sept. 19 in her favorite section of the Lake Placid Public Library. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

LAKE PLACID — Emma Hubbard is one of Lake Placid Public Library’s star patrons, according to librarians Linda Blair and Kate Curry. Now, at 7 years old, her first book — “Let’s Keep Assateague Wild” — has hit the shelves.

Emma is homeschooled and spends a lot of her time in the children’s room of the library — where this interview was held — with her 4-year-old sister, Layla. Both girls are voracious readers, artists and adventurers — they recently won the library’s poster contest in their age ranges and have each earned their junior park ranger badges at Assateague Island National Seashore.

The Hubbard family has traveled to the island six times in the past two years. The 37-mile-long barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean is shared between Maryland and Virginia and is protected by the National Park Service and Maryland State Parks. Car camping and backcountry sites are available for reservation on the island.

The main attraction at Assateague is the historic herd of wild horses that have populated the area for more than 200 years. According to the NPS, local legend says the horses are survivors of a Virginia shipwreck in the colonial period. It is more likely that the horses, which are descended from domesticated breeds, were brought to the islands in the late 17th century by landowners to skirt fencing laws and livestock taxation.

Chip, Delegate’s Pride or N6ELS-H was a stallion that lived in the wild horse herd on Assateague Island in Maryland, where the Hubbard family has traveled six times since 2021. He was banished from the island last year for aggressive behavior that endangered guests and sent to a ranch in Texas. He also happened to be Emma’s favorite wild horse on the island and her writerly muse.

Emma, left, and Layla Hubbard are frequent visitors to the Lake Placid Public Library Children’s Room. They are seen here on Tuesday, Sept. 19. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

“When one of my favorite horses left, I felt really sad, so I wanted to do something about it,” she said. “I liked the herd, and he was really pretty.”

She began writing her book in August 2022, inspired by her visit to the now Chip-less Assateague.

“Emma has so much wisdom for her age and she was so upset when Chip left,” Jennifer Hubbard, Emma’s mom, said. “She recognized, though, that there’s this problem of people not following the rules and she wanted to be part of that solution. She came up with this idea for the children’s book, which we then pitched to the Assateague Island Alliance, and they loved the idea and they really helped make her book dream come true.”

The Alliance printed about 50 copies of Emma’s book to start, according to Jennifer. Aside from efforts to educate, the nonprofit group also that protects Assateague and tracks all horses on the island. They are catalogued by Keiper number — an ID number — and by a name. The group holds fundraisers to name the horses, which accounts for eccentrically-named herd, from “Gokey GoGo Bones” to “Mr. Frisky Hooves” to “TJ Hollywood.” The herd breaks into smaller bands of horses, which travel around the island together. The Alliance also tracks where each band is located on the island and catalogs any foals born to the herd. When Chip was around, he and Susi Sol traveled in a band with their foals. Now that he’s gone, Susi and her new foal belong to the “Billy Bob” band. She is the favorite wild horse of Layla, Emma’s 4-year-old sister.

“So, it was Susi and Chip, and then they have three or four babies and they all came around together when we were camping there. They would visit every day through the campground and (Emma and Layla) really enjoyed watching them,” Jennifer said.

Emma Hubbard signs a copy of her book, "Let's Keep Assateague Wild," for Lake Placid Public Lbrary Director Bambi Pedu on Aug. 25. (Provided photo)

On May 2, 2022, the Assateague Island National Seashore announced that Chip was being sent away from the island due to his aggressive behavior. In a statement, they said that Chip had been involved in more than half of all incidents that had injured visitors to the island since 2017.

“He was food aggressive,” Emma said. “People were giving him food.”

Emma’s book, which follows a family of four as they travel around Assateague, explains why “a fed horse is a dead horse.” When humans feed wild animals — even wild animals that can be domesticated, like horses — they can become too comfortable around humans. At first, it can seem sweet to unsuspecting visitors that the horses are willing to come close. They may even encourage the behavior by continuing to feed the wild horses. But Assateague is very different from a domesticated petting zoo. These horses are wild animals; If they are conditioned to expect treats, they may become aggressive on their quest for snacks and endanger park visitors in the process. This is what happened to Chip, and why he was ultimately forced to leave his herd and go halfway across the country to live out his days.

“I wrote this book because I love the horses,” Emma said. “So no other horse has to leave Assateague.”

Human food is also unhealthy for the horses, Emma added. As recently as 2017, wild horses on Assateague have died from being fed apples, carrots and sugar cubes, which can turn to sugar-alcohol in the horses’ intestines and cause colic, potentially rupturing the intestine and filling vital organs with poison.

Emma was awarded a National Park Service challenge coin by park rangers at Assateague Island during her book signing there this summer. (Provided photo)

Or, as Layla put it in simpler terms, “They can’t digest the sugars.”

“I think Layla’s memorized the book,” Jennifer said.

Unlike most children’s books, “Let’s Keep Assateague Wild” does not have illustrations. Instead, it features photos of the island taken by the Hubbards. Emma also included interactive portions after the main story, including a fill-in-the-blank wild horse observation log, space for sketches and a list of Emma’s favorite things to do in and around Assateague. Her top three must-see attractions are Crabs to Go, a seafood restaurant; the Atlantic Ocean; and Island Creamery, a nearby ice cream shop — in that order.

Emma is hard at work brainstorming her next book, which will be about the piping plover, a small, endangered bird species that populates Assateague.

“They’re little birds that like the ocean” she said. “They keep going in and out of the ocean … (and) they’re endangered.”

For now, though, she has kept busy with her unofficial book tour. When she visited Assateague this summer, she signed 30 copies of her book and was presented with a special challenge coin by park rangers for her conservation and charitable efforts. The book is a fundraiser for the Assateague Island Alliance.

“I wanted to donate 100%, but Mom wouldn’t let me,” Emma said.

“(We) negotiated 90%, and then 10% we’re saving for Emma, and she can donate it all back if she wishes — or use it to write her next book,” Jennifer said. “I do think this book will inspire people to follow the rules and provides context and understanding for it. Emma just cares so much, and I think she inspires everyone around her to care more and to do more.”

“Let’s Keep Assateague Wild” is available at tinyurl.com/4xmjpwrm for $15. If Emma has her way, all of the proceeds will eventually go toward protecting the wild horses of Assateague Island.

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