For generations of kids who grew up in northeast Indiana, a trip to the renowned Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo wouldn’t be complete without a ride on the ponies and a picture to go along with it. Similar to sitting on the lap of Santa Claus at Christmas, it’s almost a rite of passage. For the past 40 years, the Hooley family has been making that unforgettable experience extra special at the Pony Trail.
71-year-old Byron Hooley says he could ride a pony before he could walk. It’s a trait that runs in the family. “My dad was known as the pony man of Shipshewana.” Since 1981, Byron and the Hooley ponies have been a fixture at the zoo. With a huge smile, he says “It’s been a great joy to have my two sons working with me.” Cory and Derek Hooley grew up at the Pony Trail. They now own and operate the business with their dad. Derek, now 41 years old, used to play in the sandpile next to the ponies when the Hooleys first came to the zoo. Now his three boys play in the same sandpile. “To see my kids out here, and Cory’s four kids doing the same things we did 35 years ago brings a joy. It’s a sense of accomplishment to carry on that generational legacy my grandfather started.”
It’s a joy the Hooley’s share with a generation of kids who ride their ponies. Amy Richards regularly brings her four boys. They range in age from eight months to seven years old. She says the special touch the Hooley’s provide is priceless. “It’s very rewarding to be around a family owned business. They care. You can tell they go out of their way to make it extra special for my boys each time.” Seven year old Jacob says it’s comfy to ride in the saddle on the pony Frank. He teaches his younger brothers “that ponies are cool and fun to ride.”
Byron says with a tear in his eye and the pride only a father could have, that Cory and Derek are his rocks now. “They’ve done a great job. My sons are good fathers. They’ve taught their kids how to do the same thing. It’s great to see it go on generation after generation.”
A visit to the Pony Trail wouldn’t be complete without a picture to remember the experience. Thousands have been snapped over the years. They routinely show up on slide shows at graduations and weddings. Parents compare their pictures with those of their children. A big part of the pony experience is education. The Hooley’s are a family of teachers. Cory says with pride, “My dad was a teacher. Derek was a teacher. I’m a teacher. My sister is a teacher in North Carolina, and my mom was a teacher.” Janet Hooley taught kindergarten and first grade at Abbett Elementary in Fort Wayne Community Schools for years. She passed away 12 years ago after a courageous battle with colon cancer. Cory says his mom was the “rock” of the family and her faith left a lasting legacy for her kids and grandkids. Byron spent 30 years with FWCS as a teacher and Dean of Students. Derek taught 14 years in Atlanta. Cory currently teaches at Harrison Hill Elementary School as has been with FWCS for 14 years.
It’s easy to see why Bryon Hooley and Hooley Family Ponies at the Fort Wayne Children Zoo are POSITIVELY FORT WAYNE!
Showing their appreciation for 40 years of support at the Pony Trail, the Hooley’s are giving away a Pony Party. You can find information about how to enter on their Facebook Page.