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New Ipswich

When a passion becomes a mission

LIFE ON THE SANCTUARY: New Ipswich woman out to preserve  the bloodlines of the beautiful yet vanishing Newfoundland Pony

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Emily Chetkowski and George Aho of New Ipswich run Villi Poni Farm, where they have a handful of Newfoundland Ponies, a critically endangered breed. (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

Emily Chetkowski never set out to be a protector of the Newfoundland Pony. But what started out as intrigue soon became a quest to help save a vanishing breed with a sanctuary on her sprawling New Ipswich farm.

Initially, Chetkowski just wanted to find a barn companion for her draft horse. That’s when she immediately fell in love with a half-Newfoundland cross named Tansy.

Once she took her home, that was the start of it all, Chetkowski said in an recent interview at her New Ipswich farm, where she and the ponies have resided since 2011. Little did she know that the bright little pony she had purchased to keep her draft horse company would lead to a whole new direction for her little farm, transforming it from a farm to a sanctuary for a handful of Newfoundland ponies. As she researched her new pony, she was surprised how loving, docile, and smart she was, and was intrigued by the strength of the bond she had with the animal she had expected to simply be a companion for her horse.

“I fell madly in love with her. She’s like no other equine that I’ve ever owned. She was so smart and friendly, she was almost like a dog. The connection was there immediately and very different from what I’ve experienced with my other horses.”

Once she had one Newfoundland under her belt, she “was doomed,” Chetkowski said. The opportunity came up a few years after purchasing Tansy to purchase her half-sister, Mandy. Mandy is a full-blooded Newfoundland, one of only 250 of breeding age left in the world, and one of 33 now in the United States. And a year later, Chetkowski jumped at the chance to purchase their dam, Heather.

“It just kept happening,” Chetkowski said. “I just kept finding these ponies.”

And while collecting the ponies, Chetkowski decided she needed to hire a trainer. And when she met her new trainer’s father, George Aho, the two nearly immediately fell in love, Chetkowski said. Now married, Aho runs the Villi Poni Farm sanctuary with her.

“I was a Massachussetts police officer for years,” said Aho with a grin. “I never thought I’d end up raising ponies.” But Aho is a natural with the horses, which immediately start nuzzling his pockets for the treats he readily hands out the second he steps into their paddock. The ponies are friendly and curious, and come out to see who has come to visit. The farm has five Newfoundlands on site, as well as a quarterhorse and two donkeys, said Chetkowski.

Having such a large section of the breed’s small United States population has put her in an odd position, said Chetkowski. She owned two full-blood mares of breeding age in a breed where the males outnumber the females at a ratio of three to one. As she started to research this breed she was rapidly falling in love with, Chetkowski realized that owning Newfoundland ponies comes with a certain amount of responsibility — to make sure that these ponies leave a legacy before they pass on, to continue the breed. This is especially true for Chetkowski’s ponies, which have not been overbred and have rarer lines, a critical aspects to keeping such a small population genetically healthy.

Continuing the breed

The Newfoundland pony was used until the 1960s as an all-purpose animal in Newfoundland, for plowing, hauling fishing nets, gathering hay, carrying and hauling wood and pulling carts. But then they were replaced by mechanical equipment, and thousands ended up being put to slaughter, until under 100 were left in 1980.

Though Chetkowski had never planned to be a breeder, she felt it was her duty to try to extend the life of the line, so she made the decision to breed Heather with a Newfoundland stallion from Maine. The stallion is what is known as a “color changer,” and his coat changes dramatically with the seasons, a trait that’s unique to the Newfoundland breed. It was a trait that his daughter, Winsome Dream, the first and so far only filly birthed at Villi Poni Farm, inherited.

“She’s stunning,” said Chetkowski of Winsome Dream. “If I could have picked a pony to carry on the lines, it would have been her. Her disposition is amazing.”

But not all decisions are as simple as whether or not to breed, Chetkowski said. When she got a call about a Newfoundland stallion in Maine that had injured its femur, it came down to a very hard choice for Chetkowski. She went to see the injured pony. Four months after the animal had broken his femur, high, near the hip, he was still alive, but hardly able to get around.

The current owners of the stallion offered the pony to Chetkowski, who accepted, but took him home knowing there was a good chance that the only acceptable future would be to humanely put the animal down. And on the four-hour drive home with the injured pony, it was a choice that was heavy on her heart, Chetkowski said, knowing the importance every single pony has to the breed. Especially a pony like Ammy, who is a buckskin — one of only five buckskin Newfoundlands left in the world.

“It was difficult, and knowing what to do was difficult,” said Chetkowski. “He’s an important line, and a rare color, but you never want to be cruel to keep an animal to save the breed.”

It was ultimately Aho who convinced Chetkowski to give the stallion, Ammy, a chance. Horses and the ponies had always been Chetkowski’s domain, but Aho had taken one look at Ammy and wanted him to be his pony. So Chetkowski and Aho decided to see if the pony would adapt to his injury, with the expectation that they might have to put him down if he couldn’t.

But Ammy surprised them by defying their expectations, and compensating for his injured leg. The injury fused, and even though the pony isn’t in pain, he’s unable to run. But Ammy doesn’t let that stop him from galloping about the yard on three hoofs, with his injured leg lifted off the ground. Ammy’s just an example of how extremely hardy and adaptable this breed is, said Chetkowski, and he’s become the farm mascot. And his adaptability will give him the opportunity to extend his bloodline, as Chetkowski plans to breed him to Misty, their gray Newfoundland, next year.

“She’s the only filly he’s not related to in the whole country,” said Chetkowski, “and she’s the one he’s gone for. It’s like they have an instinct for it.”

Their goal is not numbers, said Chetkowski. Instead, they plan to select rare and underused bloodlines to pair to put a select few new foals on the ground that will have the most impact on the breed. This will promote the genetic diversity needed to keep the Newfoundland Pony alive and well for future generations.

A safe haven

Before she knew it, Chetkowski had become the owner of five Newfoundland ponies and a Newfoundland cross. And while she’s made forays into the world of breeding, it’s not her specialty, and she doesn’t show the ponies, either. She was at a bit of a loss with what to do with her new collection of rare-breed animals.

“I kept saying, ‘What are we going to do with them?’” she recalled.

But she began to notice how much interest people had in her little ponies, as they learned a little about what they are and their important place as a rare breed in the world. Everyone that stopped by for any reason, even down to the UPS man, would eventually end up in the barn among the ponies, she said. And Chetkowski found that she liked to explain how important it was to preserve this individual race of ponies. So, it hit her — her farm could be a sanctuary, where the Newfoundlands could be safe and protected, and people could learn about the value of genetic diversity.

“The Newfoundland pony is perfection, as nature intended. The sanctuary offers the public the opportunity to meet and get to know a unique being, a beautiful friendly pony that holds the keys to survival of its entire species and ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, our own as well,” Chetkowski said. “If there are no genetically strong breeds left within a species, be it plant or animal, that species will be lost. It will come down to genetic vulnerability; Landraces are the healthiest and strongest of all. We, the human species, depend on them for our own survival as well.”

Chetkowski and Aho renamed their farm “Villi Poni Farm” — Finnish for “Wild Pony” — and began the process of becoming a non-profit entity. They expect to be approved within a year, said Chetkowski. Until then, the farm is continuing to educate people about the importance of this small race of ponies, to the overall equine population. The ponies are not expensive, despite being so rare a breed, and Chetkowski acquired her own for only a few thousand for the most expensive. That makes people tend to dismiss their value, and not realize their importance, she said.

“I ended up with them, and I ended up responsible,” Chetkowski said. “It’s an added burden to have a rare breed. If I decided to get out of horses where would they go? But I do have them. I don’t feel I’m a breeder, and I don’t show them, but I have a resolution to do something with them, and education is the way to go. If I can make people understand it’s our future to save these breeds, then I’ll have done my job.”

Tours of Villi Poni Farm are available by appointment. Tours are free of charge, but donations are accepted. To contact Villi Poni Farm, call Chetkowski at 291-0424, or email villiponifarm@me.com. For more information visit www.villiponifarm.org.

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