Located off the coast of both the states Virginia and Maryland lay the islands of Assateague and Chincoteague. Assateague lays the furthest out, with smaller island of Chincoteague placed between the island of Assateague and the state of Virginia. Assateague is much longer and has part of the island in Virginia and continues as it crosses the state line into Maryland, residing in two states.
How Do Ponies Get on an Island?
While no one seems to be able to have hard proof as to how the ponies got to the islands, there are several theories available to what happened. The first theory is that the ponies are of Spanish descent from when a shipwrecked, stranding some of the ponies on the island. Some argue that this is the truth, as there are two sunken Spanish ships off the coast of Virginia that contribute as supporting evidence. Another theory of the island ponies is that some were left on the island by pirates. The final and most-believed theory is that the ponies were transported to the islands by farmers on the mainland. Taxing and fence laws for animals were non-existent on the islands, so the farmers moved livestock there to avoid taxation.
Chincoteague ponies, also known as the Assateague Horse, are small in stature and very hardy. Some contribute the wet marshland and challenging terrain and weather conditions to the tiny size of the ponies. Their diet consists of the wet marsh grassland that surrounds them. Due to all the salt from the ocean water and in the grass, these ponies drink up to twice as much as a regular horse, which makes them seem fat. They can be seen in all various types of solid colors, as well as the favorite pinto or spotted colors. They have been reported as easy to train, and are easy keepers with excellent temperaments.
Pony Penning Day
There are two separate herds of ponies. While they are commonly referred to as “Chincoteague ponies,” they all reside on Assateague Island, with the two herds being separated by a fence that divides the Virginia side and herd and the Maryland side and herd. The Virginia side is what is called the Chincoteague ponies, and they are managed and owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. 150 ponies are allowed to live on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, regulations that were set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Over 30 foals are born each year, so thinning the herd to meet regulations is the only way to keep the number close to 150 ponies. Pony Penning Day is the designated as the last Wednesday in July when riders swim over the herd of ponies from the Virginia Assateague side to Chincoteague Island. Thousands of visitors flock to the penning day every year and have become the islands main draw for tourism. The swim takes about 10-minutes, and there are people are assigned to watch and assist any struggling foals. Pregnant mares or tiny foals too small to swim are trailered over, as well as any older or weak ponies. The larger of the foals are auctioned off the next day to some fortunate owners, with all proceeds going to the fire department. The rest of the heard and the small foals are returned, either trailered or swam back to the island that Friday. Some people do a “buy-back” where they pay an auction price for a pony, but allow it to return home with the herd, allowing the money to go to the fire department. These ponies are rounded up twice a year for vet inspection and shots as disease prevention and readiness for those that are auctioned to private buyers and will be traveling to the U.S.
Misty of Chincoteague
The Chincoteague ponies were made famous by the book called Misty of Chincoteague. A favorite of children and adults, Misty of Chincoteague shed a spotlight on the island ponies, especially after a film was made I the 1960s, allowing tourism to boom and allowing the fire department to continue the care and upkeep of the herd. A real Misty pony was born in the 1940s and was the inspiration for Marguerite Henry’ book. As of today, there are over 200 descendants of the real Misty of Chincoteague.
Rest and Dine
Pony Penning Day draws thousands of visitors to the tiny island of Chincoteague. With only a few thousand people that call Chincoteague home, it relies on visitation and tourism and its ponies. The town has many small hotels and bed and breakfasts for your stay, but make reservations early as everything fills up for Pony Penning day. Ice cream parlors and restaurants are available and will make the warm July visit to see the Pony Penning day even more enjoyable with some cool ice cream. Miniature golf courses, sandy beaches, and three museums are available for entertainment as well, while you wait for the swim to begin.
The Island Ponies
Horse enthusiasts, excited observers, and fans of the story Misty of Chincoteague flock every year to the small island to watch the ponies swim and the annual auction. The herd has masterfully cared for hundreds of years while maintaining a healthy herd and the appropriate numbers. Mark your calendars on the last Wednesday and Thursday in July to see this fantastic event, and, if you want to take your own Misty home, don’t forget your horse trailer.