The story of these wild island ponies attracts people from all over the world!
During the month of July, the Saltwater Cowboys gear up for the annual Pony Swim celebration in Chincoteague Island, Virginia. Those that enjoyed Marguerite Henry’s popular book, Misty of Chincoteague, may already be familiar with this spectacular event. The main attraction is a bunch of shaggy yet sturdy wild horses known as the Chincoteague Ponies. Their incredible story has been passed down for generations!
These hardy ponies have resided on the Assateague Island for hundreds of years. It is suspected that they made an appearance on the island as early as the first settlers. Furthermore, it is very plausible that they were survivors of a shipwreck.
The history of Pony Penning is equally long! And while it may have occurred as early as the 1700s, published records officially describe penning on the Chincoteague Island in the mid-1800s. These events were a way for livestock owners to claim, brand and break their loose herds. Eventually, they grew is size and visitors came to watch!
In 1925, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company held a carnival during Pony Penning to raise funds for better fire fighting equipment. Not only was the fair a huge success, but 15 colts were sold to benefit the fire company. It was suspected that over 25,000 people gathered to watch the 1937 event. One of the most influential years, 1947 is when the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was created on Assateague. This protected and allowed the publicly owned herds to graze on government land. Additionally, Misty of Chincoteague was published that year!
The Pony Penning event is still held in July during the Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival. The herd swims across the narrowest part of the Assateague Channel and then they are examined by veterinarians. After they rest, the group is herded through the town of Chincoteague and into a corral. An auction is held the next day to raise funds and control population sizes. After all the festivities, the adult ponies and a few foals make their swim back to the island.
It was in 1994 that the Chincoteague Ponies were named an official registered breed. They average between 12 and 13 hands with thick manes, short legs and round bellies. On the island, their main diet consists of salt water cord grass that grows in the marshes. They must drink lots of fresh water to compensate for all of the salt water consumed. The herd is maintained at 150 ponies with 70 foals born each year.
Nowadays, visitors swarm to see the Chincoteague ponies in their nature habitat. A small portion of the herd can be seen on the Woodland and Pony trails, while the vast majorly can only be viewed through a scenic boat tour or wildlife bus. In April and October, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company gathers the herds for vet checks. This gives folks the chance to see them in their corrals, as well. And lastly, the Chincoteague Pony Centre allows guests to ride, pet and observe their herd. They even have descendants of the real-life Misty!
Unfortunately, the 2020 Pony Swim was cancelled due to COVID-19. The foals are still being auctioned off through an online host though. Let’s hope to see the amazing Pony Penning celebration in 2021!
Emily Fought discovered her passion for horses early on in life. When she isn’t writing about them, you can find her in the barn riding. Although Emily’s background is in dressage, she enjoys cross-training and is an avid trail rider. She resides in Northwestern Pennsylvania with her husband and small dog. Together, they own and operate Humblewood Farm.