The Wild Ponies of Chincoteague

Published: November 09, 2012
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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