WATERFORD — Robert Wheeler has made a lot of children happy in the 58 years he has been giving pony rides around New England.

“I am known as the pony man, but these guys are the stars of the show,” said the 89-year-old Pembroke, N.H., man, pointing to his string of ponies tied to a well-traveled stock trailer.

“They are known all over the country, and they are the ones the kids will talk about and remember,” Wheeler said.

The easy-going man with a big grin and a welcoming manner is proud of his humble operation and looks forward to each venue.

“I am the biggest littlest pony ranch east of the west,” Wheeler said. “Who’s going to dispute that?”

Despite its name, the three-day World’s Fair that ends Sunday is a small event, so he only brought five ponies. He has 18 back at his Painted Pony Farm.

The five include two geldings and three mares ranging from 7 to 17 years old — Pee Wee, Buddy, Teddy, Queenie and Paladin.

“It takes a special type of animal to do this business,” he said, noting that he doesn’t look at the breed. He studies the personality and disposition.

“The ones that go with me are as near perfect as I can find,” he said. “I can’t afford to have anything go wrong.”

At Waterford, the ring is set up behind the fair restaurant on the flattest piece of ground he could find. His fifth-wheel trailer forms one border and his camper a second. He likes to be close to his ponies because “I don’t like anyone messing with them.”

For $4, a child sits astride one of the ponies while being led around three times. Wheeler came to Waterford from last week’s Ossippee Fair, where Waterford Vice President Dottie Bell saw him last year. He remembered coming here “many years ago” when the fair was larger.

His next stop is the Stratham Fair in New Hampshire. Last year, Wheeler logged 38 events in four states — Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.

He used to do more than 60 events ranging from hospital, church and business gatherings to a variety of private functions and birthday parties.

The pony man didn’t start out with ponies. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he tried a variety of jobs including coast-to-coast trucking. He ended up hauling western saddle horses back to New England.

“I had the pick of the crop,” he said, “but some didn’t do as I expected.” They would buck or misbehave, so he would take them back to be auctioned.

One day, a fellow who needed some Brahman steers asked Wheeler about the ill-mannered horses and offered to buy them for his rodeo. That went along for a while, but the rodeo wasn’t making money and one day Wheeler noticed his partner was gone, along with bucking shoots, pens that have a release door for the rodeo.

Wheeler followed him to New York and gave him a choice of paying what he owed or turning the rodeo over to him. After eight years of hauling horses for auctions, Wheeler found himself in the rodeo business, which was OK for a while until a Brahman bull “worked me over pretty good,” he said.

He was thrown three times, “but the fourth time I didn’t get up.” That’s when he decided to “go into the easy business,” providing pony rides to children.

He’s been at it ever since and has no plan to slow down, he said.

Robert Wheeler, 89, the pony man, stands with his son-in-law, Dwayne Mainville. On the ponies are Emma Wentworth, 8, and Scarlett Wentworth, 6, of Sidney. The girls are the children of Cheryl and Jim Wentworth. For 58 years, Wheeler has been bringing his ponies to fairs around New England. 

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