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Nestled in the beautiful Assateague Island are two herds of Chincoteague wild ponies, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia state line. These wild ponies have a long, rich history and have become a true American treasure.
The Chincoteague ponies have spent time in the spotlight, from the famous Pony Swims to a famous children’s horse book.
Many equestrians grew up reading the wonderful book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. The well-loved novel follows the journey of two children raising the filly of a wild Chincoteague pony.
About Chincoteague Wild Ponies
Around 300 Chincoteague wild ponies roam freely on Assateague Island. With part of Assateague Island being in Virgina, and the other part being Maryland, the ponies are divided into two herds.
The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service and the Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Every year, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company buys a grazing permit from the National Fish & Wildlife Service. The permit allows them to maintain a herd of approximately 150 adult ponies.
In 1994, the Chincoteague pony became a registered breed. The ponies stand between 12-13 hands tall. They have stocky builds, with short legs, round bellies, and thick manes.
Here is a video of a horse saying hello to beach goers
What Do the Chincoteague Wild Ponies Eat & Drink?
Since Assateague Island consists of salt marshes, maritime forests, and sandy beaches, the ponies have a unique diet. They typically eat cordgrass from the marshes and drink fresh water found on the island.
Since the cordgrass they eat has such high salt content, the ponies drink up to twice as much water as normal horses. This is what gives their stomachs a round, bloated appearance.
For the safety of both people and the ponies, visitors are urged not to feed or pet the ponies. Human food can be harmful to the ponies and if they start to rely on people for food, they can be put in harm’s way by getting too close to vehicles. Since the ponies are wild, they can kick and bite people if they get too close.
History of the Chincoteague Wild Ponies
For hundreds of years, Chincoteague ponies have inhabited Assateague Island. Over time, they have adapted to thrive over the 37 mile barrier island.
When it comes to how the ponies arrived on the island, there are a couple of different theories on how they got there.
The most popular story told among locals is that the ponies are descendants of the survivors of a Spanish galleon that had wrecked along the coast of Assateague.
Others say that they were brought to the island in the 17th century by mainland owners looking to avoid fencing laws and taxation on livestock.
History of the Chincoteague Pony Penning
Penning is a long-held tradition as a way for livestock owners to claim, brand, and break their loose herds. In the 1700s, it became a regular event on the island that included drinking, eating, and festivity among the community.
In 1835, the earliest description we know of Pony Penning was published. By 1885, penning would take place one day on Assateague Island and one day on Chincoteague Island.
The penning festivities began to gain popularity and in 1909, the last Wednesday and Thursday of July were dedicated as the yearly penning dates.
After several detrimental fires in the town of Chincoteague in 1925, residents decided to hold a carnival at the Pony Penning to raise money for equipment for the firefighters.
The carnival proved to be a success, with 15 colts being sold. People all over the country gained interest in the event, with thousands flocking to see the ponies.
What is the Chincoteague Pony Swim?
Today, Pony Penning is still a popular event, with people from all over coming to watch. The annual event is referred to as The Pony Swim and around 40,000 people come every year to watch the ponies.
See this video below of The Pony Swim.
The ponies are rounded up, visited by vets and then swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. The first foal to reach the shore is named King or Queen Neptune and is given away in a raffle winning later that day.
After the ponies are done swimming, they rest for 45 minutes before partaking in a parade down Main Street to the carnival. The ponies then spend the night at the carnival grounds, with an auction taking place the next morning.
In order to keep the herd size from getting too large, the foals are auctioned off. The money from the auction goes to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and to help pay for veterinary expenses for the ponies throughout the year.
Every year, a few of the foals are auctioned as “Buy Backs” by the Fire Company. The Buy Back ponies are returned to Assateague Island in order to replenish the herd.
The winners of the Buy-Back ponies get to name them before they are returned to the wild. The day after the auction, the remaining ponies swim back to Assateague Island.
Every year, proceeds from one foal go to help a regional charity. In addition, the Feather Fund helps assist deserving children with the purchase of a foal.
The fund was started in memory of Carollynn Suplee, who would always help children purchase ponies at the auction before she passed away from cancer in 2003.
Visiting the Chincoteague Wild Ponies
Every year, visitors from all over the world come to see the beautiful Chincoteague ponies. Seeing the ponies in person is truly an amazing experience and something the whole family can enjoy.
Viewing the ponies during the Pony Swim is a wonderful experience. The public can view the ponies from the beach during the herd round-ups.
During the swim, visitors can gather at Veteran’s Memorial Park to watch the ponies swim between the islands. People may also line up along the parade route to watch the ponies, as well as viewing them at the carnival.
Though the Pony Swim is a wonderful experience to see the ponies, it is often very crowded with limited space. To get the best chance to view the Chincoteague ponies, visitors are encouraged to visit between April to October.
Can You Walk to See the Wild Chincoteague Ponies?
Yes, you may walk to see the Chincoteague ponies on the Assateague Island. They can often be seen in small groups of just a few ponies along the beach.
People are allowed to walk the beaches in both the Maryland and Virginia portions of the island. Visitors are strongly encouraged to keep a distance of 50 feet from the ponies.
Chincoteague Pony Tours
Guided tours are a great way to learn about the Chincoteague ponies and see them in person. There are many great tours available on the island that the whole family can enjoy.
Guided tours are very popular and visitors are encouraged to book in advance to ensure their spot. Tours are offered by boat, kayak and bus, and are a fun, safe and interesting way to view these magnificent ponies.
For more information on the tours, you can check out the Assateague Island Activity Guide to see what guided tour options are available.
Saturday 9th of October 2021
Just to let people know if they’re going to the pony swim. Don’t set down close to the water. Set up on the higher ground because when the tide comes in you are going to get very wet. We were late and were on the high grounds and got to watch those down lower run from the tide.
Monday 18th of October 2021
Thank you for letting us know Lou :)