An Island's Living History

Chincoteague ponies continue to thrive in adverse conditions, and an annual auction ensures their survival.


courtesy Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce

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You too can own a piece of living history, just as Paul and Maureen Beebe did, in the children’s classic book, Misty of Chincoteague, written by Marguerite Henry. All you have to do is attend the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department’s annual Pony Penning and Auction of Ponies.

Henry’s fictional book, based on a true story, takes place on a pair of islands located off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland. One of the islands, Assateague (assa-teeg), is home to roughly 300 wild horses. They are called Chincoteague (shinko-teeg) ponies, named for the second island, Chincoteague.

According to popular local legend, a Spanish galleon bound for South America in the 16th century was shipwrecked off the shore of Assateague, and the horses swam for the island. A great story, but it’s more likely the original horse inhabitants were brought there, along with other farm animals, by settlers living on Chincoteague using the other island as a natural fenceless pasture, and over time, the horses returned to their natural wild instincts.

Little ponies

Chincoteague ponies are small (average 12-13 hands) but have strong, sturdy bones. Although they are called ponies, their skeletal structures prove they are actually horses. Though the island’s food supply is far from ideal for horses, the Chincoteagues adapted to the sparse and often high-salt diet, which is responsible for stunting their growth. These interesting little horses graze primarily on salt-marsh cord grass, salt-meadow hay and beach grass. When fresh water is scarce, they will also drink saltwater. To offset their large salt intake, Chincoteague ponies drink twice the volume of water that mainland horses drink – about 20 gallons a day. This incredible volume of liquid causes the ponies to have round bodies that make them look fat or pregnant.

With sparse food and rough weather conditions on the island, it’s amazing that these horses continue to thrive, but thrive they do. Each year, a new crop of foals – with colors ranging from the rare solid black to more common and highly variable pinto markings – prance on the beaches of Assateague.

Tourist attraction

Through the years, Chincoteague ponies have played an important part in local residents’ lives, and, within the last century, the horses have made a large contribution to the local economy as a major tourist attraction. This notoriety is largely due to Marguerite Henry’s popular book series that also includes Stormy, Misty’s Foal, Sea Star and Misty’s Twilight.

A movie called Misty, based on the original book, also helped bring national awareness to these unique horses and the islands where they live. It was filmed on Assateague and Chincoteague islands, and the herd of wild horses played a leading role.

Own your own piece of history

So how can you own one of these interesting animals? On the last Wednesday and Thursday in July, Pony Penning Days takes place on Chincoteague Island, Virginia. Although this activity has taken place since the 17th century, it has evolved into a more organized event since becoming formalized in 1924. People line up on the beach early Wednesday morning to watch a group of horsemen called Saltwater Cowboys take a small ferry across the channel to round up the wild horses on Assateague. The horses are herded from the smaller island to swim across a narrow channel to Chincoteague Island where they are penned at the auction grounds. There, the foals are sold to raise money used to support Assateague Island’s herd. On Thursday morning, the remaining horses are herded back to the water, and they swim across the channel to return to Assateague Island.

Chincoteague foals taken to different parts of the country adapt easily to high-quality mainland diets and prove to be assets to their new owners. With their quiet disposition and gentle nature, Chincoteague ponies are a favorite first horse for many children. A few have gone on to competitions and have proven themselves in the show ring as well.

So if you have dreamed of owning your own horse, take a trip to an island off the East Coast and grab hold of a piece of living history.

Misty Shepherd has found a way to meld her two lifelong passions – writing and horses. She and her husband raise their three children in Washington State.