- HEIGHT: 13.2–14.2 hands
- PLACE OF ORIGIN: Assateague Island, Virginia; original stock possibly from Spain
- SPECIAL QUALITIES: Pretty faces with straight or slightly dished profile, small muzzle, and large soft eyes; famous from the books of Marguerite Henry and as fund-raisers for the volunteer fire department of Chincoteague
- BEST SUITED FOR: Pleasure riding, hunter events, driving, trail; ideal first mounts for children
Marguerite Henry made the ponies of Virginia’s barrier islands internationally famous with her 1947 story Misty of Chincoteague. That wonderful children’s book (and the two later books about Misty’s life) still captivates readers of all ages. Without the publicity from the stories of Misty, it is doubtful that the ponies or the volunteer fire department of Chincoteague would have survived so long and so well in modern times.
The little herd of ponies has lived for a very long time on the barrier island of Assateague and its smaller neighbor Chincoteague. Some believe the original ponies descended from animals that escaped from early Spanish shipwrecks along the coast. Evidence shows, however, that by the late 1600s colonists had brought horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs to the island from the mainland. For this reason, federal government officials believe it is more likely that the first sustained population of horses arrived during the seventeenth century with mainland farmers who wanted to escape fencing laws and livestock taxes.
These tough, hardy ponies have survived the harsh conditions of Assateague and Chincoteague for hundreds of years.
The Assateague herd on the Maryland side is managed by the National Park Service, while the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and maintains the Virginia herd.
Assateague and Chincoteague lie right on the border between Maryland and Virginia. Today there are actually two herds of 120 to 150 ponies each on Assateague Island. One herd lives at the Virginia end of the island, near the village of Chincoteague, and the other at the Maryland end. They are separated by a fence at the state line and are managed quite differently from one another.
The Assateague (Maryland) Herd
The National Park Service owns and manages the Maryland herd, which grew from twenty eight in 1968 to more than 165 in 1997. Overgrazing by a herd of this size had a negative impact on the local environment. To keep the population at 120 to 140 ponies, the number that the available grazing can support, managers have employed a long-term, non-hormonal contraceptive. Administered by dart gun, the contraceptive works well for about a year, after which booster shots are required. During seven years of field trials, it proved to be about 95 percent effective with no harmful side effects.
The Chincoteague (Virginia) Herd
The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd, which is allowed to graze on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge through a special-use permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Virginia herd is usually referred to as the Chincoteague Ponies.
Stallions of other breeds have been turned out with the Chincoteague herd from time to time to minimize inbreeding. Twenty wild Mustangs were purchased in 1939 from the Bureau of Land Management and added to the herd. Years later, an Arabian stallion was turned out with the ponies, but he did not survive.
On another occasion, a number of Chincoteague mares were trucked to a farm where they ran with an Arabian stallion until they were believed to be in foal, then were returned to the island. Herd managers hoped that the genetic contribution of the Arabian would add some height, length of leg, and refinement to the ponies.
The first written description of pony penning comes from 1835, but by then it was already a very old custom. This famous event, which keeps the free-ranging herd at about 150 animals, actually began during the seventeenth century. Every year the settlers rounded up unclaimed horses and marked them for ownership in the presence of their neighbors (just to keep everybody honest).
The annual roundup became a day of festivity, and by 1885 penning was held at Assateague one day and Chincoteague the next. At the time, Assateague also had a sheep-penning event. Over time the sheep-penning event diminished, but the pony penning grew larger. Meanwhile, during the early 1900s, tourists and sportsmen discovered Chincoteague Island. At first they had to travel there by boat, but by 1922 a causeway and bridges connected the barrier islands to the mainland.
Also in 1922, two fires ravaged Chincoteague. With no firefighters on the island, the town was devastated on both occasions. Townspeople organized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and in 1924 took up a collection and gathered $4.16 — not enough to buy the 750-gallon pumper and 2,000 feet of fire hose they wanted. To raise money, they held a carnival on Pony Penning Day, this time auctioning off some ponies with the proceeds going toward the fire equipment. At the time the ponies sold for twenty-five to fifty dollars, and the sale was a great success.
With the exception of the war years of 1942 and 1943, the auction has taken place annually since 1924 on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. Mounted horsemen round up the Virginia herd and swim them across the channel at low tide in front of as many as 50,000 spectators. The swim takes five to ten minutes, which doesn’t seem like much, but horses are inefficient swimmers and the channel crossing is quite a taxing athletic effort. Ponies sometimes stagger briefly after they come to shore, but they quickly catch their breath and recover. It is particularly exhausting for young foals, so observers in the water and on land stand ready to lend a hand.
Once on shore the ponies are herded into pens, and most of the larger foals are auctioned on Thursday. Very young foals stay with their mothers and return with the rest of the herd to Assateague Island on Friday.
The highest price a Chincoteague foal ever brought was $10,300 in 2001, out of a field of eighty-five ponies. The average selling price at the time was about $2,000. All new owners are required to have safe, humane transportation ready for their purchases.
Ponies purchased at the auction gentle down quickly with good handling. They have made first mounts for generations for children and are used as hunter ponies, driving ponies, and trail ponies, and for a wide variety of other sporting purposes.
Marguerite Henry and Rebecca Giusti established the Misty of Chincoteague Foundation in 1990. Their goals were to purchase and preserve as much as possible of the original Beebe Ranch, where Misty lived, and to establish an educational museum on the site of Misty’s original home to protect letters, photographs, and memorabilia for future generations.
In the wild, adult ponies tend to be about 13.2 hands and weigh around 850 pounds. With better nutrition, they sometimes grow as tall as 14.2. Because there have been outcrosses to other breeds, there is quite a bit of individual variation within the Chincoteague Pony herd. Nowadays most of the animals resemble either Arabians or Welsh Ponies, although some look more like Mustangs.
In general the head is attractive with a broad forehead, large, soft eyes, and a straight or slightly dished profile. The ears are wide set and slightly tipped in. The muzzle is small and tapered, the jowls fairly prominent and rounded. The throatlatch is moderately refined, as is the neck. The shoulders are well angulated. The chest and loins are broad and the ribs well sprung. The back is short, with a rounded croup and low-set tail.
This Chincoteague Pony displays the distinctive pinto coloring made famous by Misty.
BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES
According to the National Chincoteague Pony Association (founded in 1985):
- Chincoteague Ponies are a recognized breed with two main registries. Many animals are double registered.
- The Chincoteague Pony Association was founded in 1994. The association is open to all animals sold by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.
- The National Chincoteague Pony Association provides a registry and a trustworthy studbook and keeps transfer of ownership records for all Chincoteague Ponies, including those from the islands and those from private breeders.
- There are about 980 Chincoteague Ponies in private hands scattered across the United States and Canada.
- The wild herd is kept at 120 to 150 animals.
- Thirty to 45 foals are born on the island each year.
The legs are straight, sound, and sturdy, with dense bone. The hooves are round and hard. The mane and tail are very thick and often quite long.
All solid colors may be found, but many of the ponies (like Misty of Chincoteague) are pintos, displaying both the tobiano and overo color patterns. Pintos usually bring the best prices at the auction.