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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Although when most people think about wild horses, the image of mustangs galloping across the western U.S. usually comes to mind, some of you may recall the series of children’s books written by Marguerite Henry called Misty of Chincoteague. Published in 1947 and winner of the Newbery Honor Award, this book was about a family attempting to raise a filly born to a wild Chincoteague pony.

This book was based on fact and there was indeed a pony of Chincoteague heritage owned by the author’s family as she was growing up. The family successfully raised this filly, and as a mare, Misty had several foals. In fact, there are still living descendants of Misty in the U.S.

Chincoteague is a small island next to the much larger Assateague Island, which lies on the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. A skinny strip of land probably no more than 20 miles long, this ever-changing landscape of sand dunes and salt marshes is a National Seashore, wildlife refuge, and home to wild ponies. These animals have lived here in a feral state (not truly wild, as they came from domesticated stock), since the 1600s.

There are two theories on how these ponies came to inhabit the island. One theory proposes these animals were carried to the New World aboard a Spanish vessel that ran aground near the island. The second theory is that early colonial settlers used the island as grazing land for their horses and these ponies are their descendants. That recent discovery of a Spanish shipwreck just off the coastline provides greater credit to the first theory (you can see the recovered anchor of this wreck at the visitor’s center).

Today, there are over 300 ponies living on the island. During my first visit to Assateague, I hoped to just glimpse one. I was delighted when I ended up seeing about ten — they aren’t shy at all. In fact, one was sunbathing in the middle of the road, not fazed by cars, bikes, or gawking tourists. Moderate in size (I’d estimate on average about 12 to 13 hands), these ponies are often brown, or have pinto markings, mixing brown and white or bay and white. They are fairly stout in appearance and tend to have potbellies. This isn’t from parasites or ill-health, but rather from a diet that is rich in salt, causing them to consume a lot of water.

Assateague Island is physically divided at the Maryland/Virginia state line by a fence. The National Park Service monitors and protects the ponies on the Maryland side, while the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company manages the Virginia-side herd. Every year on the last Wednesday in July, the ponies on the Virginia side are rounded up to swim across the small tidal marsh from Assateague Island to the smaller Chincoteague Island, where young stock is then auctioned off to bidding members of the public. Like the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) mustang auctions in the west, this annual event helps control the pony population of the island and helps preserve the delicate marsh ecosystem, which would be threatened by overcrowding if the herd was not regularly thinned.

Living and practicing relatively close to this area, I’m surprised that I’ve only ever worked once with a Chincoteague pony. He was a scrubby chestnut little thing, and I was there, of course, to do horrible things to him (as in, castration). Other than a little flighty with the needles, he wasn’t too bad to work with considering he hadn’t received much training before I had to touch him. The only thing I recall from the visit is that he fought the sedation like the dickens before finally giving in. I suppose the fight or flight instinct is still strong when you’re fresh off the island.

wild pony, chincoteague pony, assateague pony, island pony

 Wild Pony of Assateague Island

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Sweet nothing by Kamweti Mutu / via Flickr

Comments  8

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  • Chincoteague Ponies
    11/09/2012 04:03am

    Thank you for the well written article on the Chincoteague ponies. It is nice the ponies are recognized. We live within a few miles of Chincoteague/Assateague. All the ponies were accounted for after the storm "Sandy." They appeared to be unfazed and grazing.

  • 11/11/2012 08:55am

    Yes, thanks for this update. It's amazing to me how tough and resilient these guys can be when left to their own devices.

  • Spanish Ponies
    11/09/2012 06:43am

    Are there ponies in Spain that appear to be from the same bloodlines? Has DNA testing been done?

    Regardless, it's nice to know the ponies are protected.

    And thank you carlinelew for letting us know that the ponies are safe after Hurricane Sandy.

  • 11/11/2012 09:00am

    You pose an interesting question. I am not sure, but I would venture to think that the Chincoteague ponies are more closely related to the mustangs in the western US than any horses/ponies now in the wilds of Spain.

    Researchers at the vet school at Virginia Tech have posted some interesting information on this topic and what are known as the Colonial Spanish Horse that can be found here: http://www.centerforamericasfirsthorse.org/north-american-colonial-spanish-horse.html

  • Thanks for the update
    11/09/2012 08:09am

    Good to hear the ponies survived the hurricane.

  • Nice article
    11/09/2012 08:53am

    I read the book and was amazed at the stories of these "wild" ponies. Thank you for writing this article. These animals are true survivors.

    And thank you, carolinelew, for the update; its good too know they are ok.

  • Comparison?
    03/26/2013 06:03pm

    "Every year on the last Wednesday in July, the ponies on the Virginia side are rounded up to swim across the small tidal marsh from Assateague Island to the smaller Chincoteague Island, where young stock is then auctioned off to bidding members of the public. Like the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) mustang auctions in the west, this annual event helps control the pony population of the island ..."

    I doubt that much comparison can be made between what happens with the Chincoteague Ponies and what happens with the BLM lands and the mass round-up and, in some cases, complete eradication from areas, that happens in the West.

    The wild horses of the west are stampeded for many miles over severe terrain, chased by helicopters, exhausted and injured in all manner of severe weather, left indefinitely in holding pens at taxpayer expense, etc. All of this is so that cattle can graze on those same lands.

    The only thing that is probably the same, is the emotional distress faced by both the western horses and Chincoteague Ponies, when their equine family members are forcibly taken from them.

  • Comparison
    03/26/2013 06:06pm

    Oh, and let's not forget the contraceptive measures taken with the female horses in the west, were their bodies do repeatedly come into heat, and the stallions fight over them and try repeatedly to breed them, but to no avail.

    Another way in which I doubt there is much comparison.

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