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Horsing Around at the Zoo Is Family Thing for Hooleys

By Rod King

Fort Wayne Reader


Ponies and horses have been part of retired Fort Wayne Community Schools teacher/coach/administrator Byron Hooley’s life since he was a kid. In fact, he was in the saddle before he could walk.

And they’re still a major part. He and his family have operated the pony rides at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo for the past 28 years. “My sons Derek and Cory and my daughter Abby always had a summer job,” says Hooley. “They worked here, along with their mother, Janet (deceased), taking tickets, helping kids mount up, walking them around the ring and feeding and caring for the animals. We’re beginning a new era because the kids are all teachers themselves now; they’re married, but two of them live away from here. Cory and his wife, Sarah, and my new wife, Nellie, are helping me now. We’re here every day from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. except when the weather’s bad.

“I worked a couple summers at the zoo for Burdette Hall who had the pony rides for 15 or 20 years and when he retired I bought the horses and all the equipment. Back then my sister, Bev, my brother, Phil and his wife, Dorothy, and my parents, Lavern and Lois, were also involved. In addition to the pony ring, we ran 18 saddle horses on the trails for nearly 10 years. When the rain forest exhibit was added it took away all the trails.”

“Only a few of the 14 horses in the pony ring are actually ponies,” says Hooley. “We have a couple Shetland ponies, several miniature horses, a Haflinger small draft horse, a Foxtrotter and some standard bred (larger) horses for the bigger kids to ride. We encourage parents to walk with their child, and we’re here to guide them if needed and see that the horses keep moving. The ride is for children 14 and under and is really ideal for four- and five-year-olds

“Horses are like people,” says Hooley. “They have their own personality. They like their strokes and some want to please more than others. We have some lovable ones and some that require constant guidance. Most of them can navigate the pony ring and return to their spot in the mounting shed by themselves, while a few need assistance. Some are really aware of what’s going on. If a saddle is slipping or a child is about to fall, they’ll stop until we get there to take care of the problem. When we get a new horse we walk with them to make sure they don’t make mistakes like turning around, stopping to eat grass, laying down, rolling over or rubbing against a post while a child is in the saddle.

“Every couple weeks I take some back to our property on Hessen Cassel Rd. to give them a break from the pony circle and turn them out to the pasture to get some exercise. In the winter we farm some out to families who take care of them and ride them. The rest are back in our barn. We really get attached to the animals. They do a great job, so we go out of our way to be good to them.

“Zoo administrator Jim Anderson has been very positive and supportive about maintaining the pony ride. We actually work for the zoo, but we do all the hiring of personnel and pay them. To work here, kids must be 14 or older. We prefer high school and college students. It’s not as easy as it might seem, because when the weather is good we might do between 800 and 900 rides. They not only have to make it a pleasant experience for the riders, but have to work hard even when they’re tired and be able to spot a possible unsafe situation before it turns into an accident.

“Working summers here at the zoo has always been a great family thing for us. We’ve been blessed and we plan to keep doing it as long as we can,” adds Hooley.

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