Chincoteague Ponies

Chincoteague is such a unique name and place that it is impossible to confuse it with anything or anywhere else. From children who have read Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague, to travel buffs who ended up on the island in search of a coastal getaway like no other, the experience and the images are singular. But while the annual July pony penning and auction are the most publicized of the Virginia island's events, the ponies are year-round inhabitants of Assateague, a 17-mile island that is actually part of two states.

It is speculation that Chincoteague gained the majority of its public recognition through Henry's book, which this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of its printing. The book detailed and mainstreamed an event which, in its current form, has continued for 71 years. The actual source of the ponies, however, is debatable.

Depending on whom you ask, the ponies either originated from a Spanish galleon that wrecked on the coastline in the 1600s, or they were free-roaming property of nearby landowners. On the former, "That's the most romantic one we have, and the one we like to use," said Larry Williams, president of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.

Actually small horses, the so-called ponies now are owned by the fire department. The firemen maintain the ponies through the year and organize the July festival (on July 30-31 this year), where they are spotlighted.

"Historians say they were put there for tax purposes, that they were private ponies that people didn't want to pay on," said Williams. "But at that time, ponies were pretty valuable, and I don't think people would leave them out here. Actually, a treasure company claims that there are two Spanish galleons off the coast, and they have permits to go search them."

Regardless of their beginnings, the island is now home to the ponies. There actually are two sets of ponies living on the same island with two very different lifestyles. The reason they are separate is because Assateague Island, while divided only by a state line and a snow fence that disappears into the ocean, is completely protected, but by two different entities.

The "Chincoteague" ponies actually live on Assateague and are brought to the island of Chincoteague once a year for the annual pony penning. The event and its inclusion in Henry's book have contributed greatly to the exploration and tourist boom in the area. The ponies are the property of the fire department, but they inhabit Virginia's Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which falls under the auspices of the United States Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service. On the north end of Assateague is another group of ponies which descended from the same stock and live in Maryland on the Assateague National Seashore, which has been managed by the National Parks Service since 1965.

Angela Tracy of the wildlife refuge explained that each of the areas has its own mission.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service is the only federal agency whose mission is dedicated to conserve wildlife. We do so for the benefit of Americans, but wildlife is the priority. National parks provide safe and enjoyable recreation for the public. That is their goal."

So while they do work together, especially in the case of the
Assateague ponies, the two groups treat their charges very differently, with the refuge employees leaving most of the pony maintenance to the firemen, and the seashore ponies treated as native wildlife, with the exception of their reproductive management.

Penning the Ponies

Between 150 and 240 ponies reside in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, Va., depending on the time of year. Other than the occasions when they visit Chincoteague Island, the ponies run free, usually in bands of four to 10. They live on Saltmarsh Cordgrass and American Beachgrass, and share the refuge with the 300 different species of birds that also draw visitors to the area.

"They're really governed more by nature's laws," said Charles Cameron, DVM, one of the veterinarians who works with the herd. "You see the strong and fit, and you see the older horses. They're not getting any special attention. They're out there surviving with the rest of them."

Three times a year, members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department round up their ponies, swim them across a short channel of water, and bring the herd to the fairgrounds on the island. By the time the last weekend in July rolls around, there might be as many as 235 ponies on Assateague's south end. Between 40 and 45 riders begin readying the herd for the event five days before it will take place. All of the ponies are rounded up and brought into holding corrals on Assateague by the Monday prior to the auction until the swim early Wednesday morning during slack tide, which is when the tide is not rising or falling and the current is stationary.

Williams described the swim: "As soon as the tide slacks, we'll swim the ponies across. It takes about seven minutes to have them across, and there will be 50,000 people waiting on the other side. Then we rest them for 45 minutes, and a vet checks them out. At that time, we walk them down South Main Street to the carnival grounds and the corrals. Wednesday afternoon we let people view them, and Thursday at 8 a.m. we have a public auction and they will go to the highest bidder."

Not every pony that is rounded up is offered for sale. Some are too young or too old, and some are simply needed for breeding stock to keep the herd thriving. The fire department has an annual grazing permit for 150 adult ponies from the wildlife refuge, so that is the number they aim to send back on the Friday following the auction. While the ponies had sold for as little as $20 in the early years of the event, they are now averaging about $1,700, with a high price last year of $6,000.

All of the money from the auction (last year's gross profit was around $130,000) goes back into the Volunteer Fire Department. The group spends around $12,000 a year on the ponies, and uses the rest to maintain the department.

"We are the only town in Accomac County that has not been imposed upon with a fire tax," Jaclyn Russell of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce said. "We've got a pretty good deal here," Williams said. "The fire company makes money on the sale of the ponies. The community helps us with the carnival, so we don't impose a fire or rescue tax. Everybody's happy. You don't find that too much anymore."

The central occasion is the pony penning, but since 1990, the ponies have been brought over twice a year for treatment by a team of veterinarians. While a pony committee of about 15 men from the fire department monitor the ponies year-round and perform some basic first aid, maintenance by a professional also is needed, especially because many of these ponies will eventually be privately owned. The ponies now have a maintenance program in place, managed by Cameron, that includes twice-a-year deworming and vaccinations for Eastern and Western encephalitis, tetanus, and rabies.

"We were approached by the fire department," said Cameron, who also operates a veterinary clinic on the island. "I think the refuge thought it would be a good idea that they have a veterinarian on the premises any time the ponies were rounded up."

Cameron has three other veterinarians assisting him; his wife Paula, Jack Hiler, DVM, and Amy Talbott, DVM.

In addition to the routine work, the team ensures that the swim prior to pony penning runs as smoothly as possible.

"What we try to do is eliminate the very young and the very old, as far as having to make that swim," Cameron said. "The very old are just turned back to their pastures on Assateague, and if we have a foal less than six weeks old, they're going to get a (trailer) ride with their mother over to the fairgrounds. Only the strong and healthy make the swim," which Cameron said at most is about 200 yards.

A Breed of Their Own

While the swim and pony penning make an exciting event and result in an important fund-raiser for the fire department, the Chincoteague story goes beyond that. The ponies which leave the island with new owners continue the breed and the lore that surrounds their ancestors. The Chincoteague pony now has an official breed registry set up on the island, with more than 300 registered ponies.

Kendy Allen said that she has had as many as 50 Chincoteague ponies come through her farm in Lancaster, Pa., including Misty II, the granddaughter of the famous Misty. She and 14 other Chincoteague ponies still call the Allens' farm home.

"We have not seen a bad Chincoteague (pony) yet," Allen said.

Allen was born 40 miles away from Chincoteague and traveled around a lot as she grew up, but, "I've always felt like I was drawn back there," she said. After she was married, she owned Quarter Horses, but one year decided to visit during pony penning weekend with her husband and children. While poking around the town and looking for information on Misty, she found a man who was offering ponies for sale. In the back of his barn, Allen found both Stormy, Misty's famous daughter, and a granddaughter of Misty named Misty II. She now keeps tabs on the Misty family. There are still 40 surviving in the world, she said, and she spreads the Chincoteague word, appearing at horse shows, fairs, and festivals with Misty II.

"Chincoteague ponies are one of the most intelligent ponies we've ever worked with," she said. "They love children and they love to please you. I think everybody that has anything to do with horses should have one in their life."

Chincoteague ponies on the Allens' farm have a variety of roles. Her children showed Misty II in hunter/jumper championships, and some of the ponies help out with the 4-H group that Allen leads.

"We didn't tell people they were Chincoteagues, and we'd clean up with the ribbons. Then we'd tell them!"Allen said.

Allen is not the only one hooked on the Misty legacy. Breyer Animal Creations, which manufactures collectible models of animals, including horses, has created five models of Misty's family including Misty II and her daughters Black Misty and Twister, three horses who are owned by Allen.

Cameron agreed that Chincoteague ponies adapt well to life outside of the island because of their easygoing temperaments.

"The nature of the Chincoteague pony is pretty docile," Cameron said. "They're a large pony or a small horse. Because of that, they usually work out well as a kid's horse. There's none of the devilment you see with a Shetland pony."

He also noted that because the ponies grow up surviving wilderness conditions, they are a hardy breed and easy keepers, and might even be less apt to colic than other horses.

The Other End of the Island

In Maryland, the horses are treated like any kind of wildlife. Just as a deer would not be fed by park officials in the wintertime or vaccinated in the summer, neither are the ponies. Unless an emergency arises, they are left to forage and fend for themselves. However, they are on a managed birth control program. While the population of the ponies in Virginia is controlled by the annual auction, no such mechanism is in place in Maryland.

"By the mid '80s, it was clear the Parks Service had to embark into some kind of management that would control the horses," said Larry Points, chief of interpretation for the Parks Service. "It was very clear that the impact of horses was pretty great. We were approaching 150 head." For example, "It was affecting shore birds that could no longer nest because the marsh grasses weren't high enough to hide them."

So, the Parks Service brought in two researchers to assist in solving the problem. First, Ron Keiper, PhD, from Pennsylvania State University began studying herd dynamics. In 1985, he was joined by Jay Kirkpatrick, PhD, a reproductive physiologist, then from the University of Montana, who had developed a birth control vaccine for the horses. Now with ZooMontana in Billings, Kirkpatrick still visits the island once a year in March to vaccinate selected female members of the herd.

The vaccine is produced from protein from pigs' ovum and is injected into the mare through tiny darts. The mare's body then recognizes the vaccine as a foreign protein and makes antibodies against it. The antibodies also attach to sperm receptor sites on her eggs and change the shape of those molecules, which prevents them from being penetrated by the stallion's sperm. This method is ideal for a number of reasons. Because it is an immunocontraception method, the horses never need to be caught. And because it is a vaccine and does not use hormones, it is reversible. No mare is vaccinated more than three years in a row, and all are monitored carefully so that normal herd behavior continues, including annual foals. Use of this method began in 1988.

"If we hadn't started treating these horses, the estimate is that today we would have 240 horses. Instead, we have 166," Kirkpatrick said. "Unlike human birth control, you're not playing with hormones," Points said. "There is no adverse behavior. That's extremely important to organizations like the United States Humane Society."

Kirkpatrick has used his method on many different species of mammals, including zebras (which he found need two booster shots per year) and white-tailed deer. He said the vaccine is being looked at for use in humans.

While the horses which inhabit the Assateague National Seashore do not have organized contact with humans, some have practically domesticated themselves, choosing to interact with visitors and campers on the island.

"It is one of our biggest management concerns," Points said.

Just as you see wild deer accepting handouts at parks, the horses can be found around beach campfires or hiking with visitors.

Another difference in Maryland is the attitude toward diseases that affect equines.

"We think we have EIA in our stock," Points said. "But the state has determined that they are effectively quarantined if we don't allow recreational horseback riding on the seashore during the insect season. People can camp or trailer horses over from October to May 14. We consider EIA, or whatever else, as part of their natural mortality and part of what makes them wild animals."

Regardless of which side of the state line these small horses call home, they are an example of something we rarely see today in the United States--a domesticated species of animal thriving in the wild. As if they are an ongoing science experiment, these animals are easily observed in their natural habitat as they are managed by biologists, firemen, government employees, and volunteers.

For information about Pony Penning, call the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce at 757/336-6161. For information on the Assateague National Seashore call 410/641-3030.

About the Author

Kristin Ingwell Goode

Kristin Ingwell Goode was a staff writer for The Blood-Horse, a weekly Thoroughbred news magazine and a sister publication to The Horse.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners