A tiny horse was the focus of a huge outpouring of concern on Delmarva over Christmas.
When she walked out to her horse pen Wednesday morning, Dec. 22, Rachel Joseph immediately noticed the gate was open, the lock was on the ground and her horse and pony were gone. It was the start of a dayslong mystery that inspired an outpouring of sympathy and efforts to help on social media. There are still few answers about what exactly happened to Whisper the pony.
It was her son's birthday that day, but the traumatic realization interfered with the celebration.
"I ran back in, and instead of saying 'Happy birthday' to my son first thing in the morning, it was 'Our horses are gone,'" Joseph recalled.
Joseph, who lives with her husband Alex and sons Carter and Sawyer in the Bridgeville area, began a search for the missing animals. The family had recently moved to a new house, so she wondered if the animals might have gone back to their old place not far away. But Joseph said she felt in her gut that they had been stolen, not just escaped.
She had a number of reasons for this. In addition to the lock being on the ground, the gate was open inward, rather than pushed out as you might expect an escaping horse to leave it. She found part of a candy cane, which she knew she hadn't left there. Later, her husband found Whisper's tracks heading out across the field with human tracks right next to them. Eventually, they discovered marks at a possible parking spot where they think a trailer ramp may have been put down.
Her other horse was soon found wandering nearby alone. "Anybody who knows horses knows they are herd animals and they really stick together, generally, they don't separate willingly," she said.
The search was on. Bridgeville police said they'd drive around and have a look, Joseph said. She also called state police but they wanted her to look for the pony some more, she said. A friend came with a drone. A neighbor searched ditches to make sure Whisper hadn't fallen in somewhere.
Then the search went viral online. Joseph's horse trainer shared about the pony in her networks, and a Facebook post by Joseph made its way all over local social media and far beyond, eventually getting shared more than 6,000 times.
"Shared in Lancaster County Pa," one commenter wrote. "Shared in twin cities area Minnesota," another said.
"I started getting pictures of like every light-colored pony on the Eastern Shore," Joseph said.
They offered a $300 reward, which quickly grew to $2,200. Someone who saw the flyer called and wanted to help raise the reward, and friends pitched in too.
"That was pretty amazing," Joseph said.
The social media campaign paid off. The day after Christmas, the family got great news: Someone had reported a pony running loose a couple miles away, in the opposite direction from where the tracks had gone. They had recognized Whisper because of social media, and this time it wasn't a false alarm.
"Immediately as I drove up, I knew that was her," Joseph said. The pony was missing her halter and blanket but apparently unharmed.
Joseph said she has no doubt that the social media campaign resulted in Whisper's return, and friends told her they were hearing the pony come up as a topic of conversation. "It got pretty hot around here."
The person who found the pony declined to take the reward, but Joseph said she's putting together a gift for them.
The family has their pony back, but still few answers about her disappearance. There's no suspect, no confession, no neat wrapup narrative with an explanation of motive. What exactly happened to Whisper and why may never be known.
"We felt very violated," Joseph said, to have someone come on their property and take a family member.
"Ultimately my horses ... next to my kids are a big part of my life."
"I felt like ... the holiday and (her son's) birthday were kind of stolen from me because I was constantly checking social media," she said. She would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and is still concerned about what happened. "It was pretty awful."
In a follow-up message, Joseph said they haven't gotten much guidance from police about whether they are pursuing a case or not. Ultimately, she said, she is happy to have Whisper back home – or rather, at a friend's home while they work on fencing and additional security. She posted on Facebook, "If somebody tries this again, they’re going to have to get through Fort Knox!"
"I really appreciate everybody sharing," she said. "They didn't have to, it's not their pony, not their worry, but they got it in their hearts that it was important enough to share."