The Chincoteague Pony originated from feral stock on Assateague Island, which is half in Maryland, USA and half in Virginia, USA, separated by a fence at the border of the two states. The Chincoteague Pony became an official breed of its own in 1994.
The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The wild herd on the Virginia side is publicly owned by the Chincoteague Fire Department. The herds on both sides of the island originated from the same founding stock, but Shetland Ponies and Welsh Ponies have been released with the Chincoteague herd to strengthen the breed.
Origin: United States.
Colors: All colors, but often pinto.
Height: Approximately 12-13hh.
Conformation: Well proportioned. Strong and Muscular. Chincoteague Ponies are stocky, with short legs, thick manes, and large, round bellies.
Temperament: Good natured, gentle, highly intelligent and versatile.
Uses: Feral. Excess ponies are rounded up once a year and can be privately purchased at an auction in July. Ponies purchased at the auction which are then domesticated are used for riding, driving, and as pets.
Some ponies purchased at the auction, designated as "buybacks," are released back into the wild to become future breeding stock for the wild herd.
Each year just a few select foals are designated as 'buybacks.' A buyback pony is auctioned with the stipulation that it will be donated back to the Fire Company and returned to Assateague Island to replenish the herd.
The winner of a buyback pony gets a certificate from the Fire Company and also gets to name the pony before it is returned to Assateague Island to live out its life there.
Wild ponies have inhabited Assateague Island for hundreds of years. Some have suggested that the wild ponies of Assateague trace their origin to horses released to forage on the Island by early settlers.
However, the evidence strongly sugests that they are the descendants of the survivors of a Spanish galleon which wrecked off the coast of Assateague. This story has been passed from generation to generation on Chincoteague Island.
The large number of shipwrecks on the mid Atlantic coastline, together with the fact that it was very common for ships to be transporting ponies to the Colonies or South America, makes it very likely that ponies originally got to Assateague from a shipwreck.
A recent book written by Mr. John Amrhein, "The Hidden Galleon: The true story of a lost Spanish ship and the legendary wild horses of Assateague Island," suggests the local story about the Spanish galleon is true.
In the book he describes the wreck of the La Galga in 1750, its location, the circumstances surrounding the voyage, the great storm of 1749 which decimated all the livestock on Assateague Island pior to the La Galga wreck, and the appearance of "Beach" Ponies shortly after the demise of the La Galga, and other evidence. While not absolute, the circumstantial evidence he presents is very powerful.
After a string of disastrous fires in the Town of Chincoteague, the villagers realized their fire fighting equipment was seriously inadequate. In 1925 the town authorized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to hold a carnival during Pony Penning to raise funds.
That year over 15 colts were sold to benefit the fire company, and the carnival was a huge success. Bolstered by the interest in the pony swim, visitors began arriving from across the country for the annual penning. The crowd in 1937 was estimated at 25,000.
The increased revenue from the carnivals and auctions enabled the fire company to modernize its equipment and facilities, and in 1947 it began to build its own herd by purchasing ponies from local owners. They moved the herd to Assateague where the government allowed publicly owned herds to graze on the newly established Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
That same year, 1947, Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague, the story that made Pony Penning internationally famous. A movie followed, as did several sequel books. The tale of the wild pony Phantom, her foal Misty and the children who buy and raise her has become a classic.
Pony Penning is still held on the last Wednesday in July and the pony auction is on the last Thursday, during the Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen's Carnival.
"Salt Water Cowboys" herd the horses across the narrowest part of Assateague Channel at low tide, after which they are examined by veterinarians. After a resting period, they are herded through town to a corral at the Carnival Grounds where they stay until the next day's auction.
The Pony Auction not only provides a source of revenue for the fire company, but it also serves to trim the herd's numbers. To retain the permit to graze on the refuge, the herd must not exceed 150 horses.
Each year thousands of people flock to Chincoteague Island to watch the Pony Penning and enjoy the Firemen's Carnival.
The Assateague Island Wild Herd
Assateague Island is a harsh environment for the Ponies and their diet is limited. The Ponies have adapted to the limited diet over the hundreds of years they have lived on Assateague.
The Ponies primarily eat the salt water cord grass that grows in the marshes on Assateague Island. They eat almost all day just to get enough nutrition from this diet to sustain themselves.
The salt content of the cord grass is very high. To compensate for all the salt in the cord grass they drink twice as much water as a normal horse. This is why their bellies appear so bloated.
The wild ponies on Assateague Island congregate in small groups, called "bands." Each band has one dominate stallion and the rest are mares that the stallion breeds with. The number of mares a particular stallion has in his band is dependent upon how dominate the stallion is.
The stronger the stallion the more mares he is able to win when fighting other stallions on the Island. The dominate stallion will kick his male offspring out of the band after a couple of years, once the colt has reached sexual maturity.
Young bachelor males tend to form their own small band, until they become big and strong enough to begin fighting for and winning mares from other stallions. Likewise, female offspring are eventually chased off by their mother to prevent inbreeding.
On average around 70 new foals are born every spring, on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. Approximately 75 percent of the mature mares have foals each year, a relatively high foaling rate for wild horses.