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The Saltwater Ponies

The barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague are home to a population of feral ponies who have adapted to life along the Atlantic seashore...

October 17, 2017

The feral ponies on Assateague Island are habituated to beachgoers, but remain wild in spirit and behavior.

Chincoteague Ponies were immortalized in 1947 with the release of the book Misty of Chincoteague by author Marguerite Henry, and the Chincoteague Pony (also known as the Assateague Horse) has since captured the imagination of both children and adults alike.

Inspired by a pony foaled on Chincoteague Island and purchased by the author as a weanling, the book was the first in a series of novels that would become children’s classics–and make the hardy little “saltwater ponies” internationally famous.

A Disney film titled Misty, based on Henry’s book and released in 1961, further increased the breed’s visibility.

The galloping popularity of the breed sparked Breyer Animal Creations to replicate the celebrity ponies as model horses, and many a grown up cowgirl has fond memories of idyllic childhood hours spent playing with her own beloved versions of Chincoteague Misty and Misty’s Foal, Stormy.

Swashbuckling legends surround the Chincoteague and the breed’s origins have been a source of intrigue since their first mysterious appearance on the barrier islands of Virginia and Maryland several hundred years ago.

Some believe the ponies’ ancestors can be traced to stock released on the islands by early seventeenth century colonists who sought to evade mainland livestock laws and taxes. Others say the ponies are descendants of horses left on the islands by pirates.

One prevalent and romantic notion is that the ponies swam ashore from a doomed Spanish galleon capsized off the coast, large waves having beaten the wooden ship apart. It may have been the Santo Cristo, a vessel headed to Panama and then to South America, its manifest said to include equines destined for work in Peruvian gold mines.

Scholar John Amrhein, in his book The Hidden Galleon, suggests that the ponies may have survived specifically the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon, La Galga, in 1750. He believes the “beach ponies” appeared following La Galga’s wreck. (A prior storm in 1749 had decimated all previous livestock on the islands.) With compelling circumstantial evidence, Amrhein has proposed an archaeological investigation of the site on Assateague where he believes La Galga lies buried.

While the veracity of the accounts of the ponies arrival on Assateague and Chincoteague Islands may be in question, the ponies’ extraordinary existence since that time is not. The harsh environment of the islands and limited diet available present a formidable challenge.

Forced to live on coarse salt marsh cord grass, thorny green briar stems, American beach grass, seaweed, bayberry twigs and even poison ivy, the horses must graze almost unceasingly in order to ingest adequate nutrition and calories to survive. The ponies will even resort to drinking small amounts of seawater should fresh water sources dry up in summer or freeze in winter.

As a result, the animals have bred down in time and size to what is recognized today as the classic Chincoteague Pony. The breed’s often bloated-looking bellies are the result of the unavoidable salt intake due to their diet.

Though popularly know as Chincoteague Ponies, these feral ponies actually live on Assateague Island–which is owned by the Federal government. Assateague Island itself is divided by a fence with Virginia on one side and Maryland on the other.

A herd of roughly 150 ponies lives on each side. Animals in the Maryland herd are referred to as Assateague horses; those in the Virginia herd are called Chincoteague Ponies. Both herds are descendants of the original seventeen animals purported to have survived the legendary shipwreck.

Despite their shared origin, the two herds are managed uniquely and by different agencies. The Maryland herd is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and lives within the Assateague Island National Seashore.

With the exception of being treated with contraceptives to prevent overpopulation, the Maryland herd is regarded as a wild species and given no more or less assistance than other wild animals.

The Virginia herd, however, is owned by the Chincoteague Fire Company, which obtains a yearly grazing permit from the National Fish and Wildlife Service, allowing this herd to live and forage on the Assateague Island Wildlife Refuge.

The Virginia ponies receive biannual veterinary treatment, including vaccinations and deworming. They are also continually monitored and first aid is rendered when needed by a committee from the fire company.

The ownership of the Virginia herd by the fire company evolved in a somewhat circuitous manner. Pony penning, popular since 1835, had become an annual summer event, which, along with a pony swim, attracted a lucrative throng of visitors to Chincoteague Island. Chincoteague Town suffered several disastrous fires in its early history and in 1925 the town burned down completely.

The local government authorized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to hold a pony auction and carnival at the time of the pony penning and pony swim, in order to raise funds for updated fire equipment. Every July, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company or “Saltwater Cowboys” as they came to be known, would round up the wild ponies off Assateague Island and swim them over to Chincoteague Island in Virginia at slack tide, when the water was neither coming in nor going out and the sea most calm.

The most desirable foals would be gathered for auction the next day. The fireman would then swim the stallions and mares back across the channel to Assateague Island. Fifteen colts were sold the first year of the now legendary tradition, and the carnival was declared a great success!

By 1937, the spectator crowd had grown to 25,000 people and as a result the Fire Company was not only able to modernize its equipment but in 1947 began to build its own herd, purchasing ponies from local owners. They soon moved their growing herd permanently to Assateague Island, onto the newly established Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (where publicly owned herds were allowed to graze.). The annual Pony Penning, Pony Swim and Fireman’s Carnival remain a well attended event to this day, held every summer the last week of July.

In 1985 the National Chincoteague Pony Association was founded. (There is also a Chincoteague Pony Association established in 1994-open only to horses purchased from the annual auction in Chincoteague.) The National Chincoteague Pony Association became the World’s first Chincoteague Pony Registry in great part due to the efforts of Gale Park Frederick.

Frederick, perhaps the most well know breeder of the Chincoteague, purchased three ponies in the mid-seventies and moved them to her farm in Bellingham, Washington. Earlier in the breed’s history, inbreeding had resulted in many conformation faults, and various breeding experiments by a number of agencies over the years had produced a wide range of results.

Welsh and Shetland pony blood had at one time been added in an effort to upgrade the stock and in 1939, the Bureau of Land Management introduced twenty mustangs into the herds.

Arabian stallions were introduced in two different instances in an attempt to add refinement and height along with a longer leg length. Frederick’s commitment over the last several decades to selective breeding practices has contributed significantly to restoring the conformation and size of the original “shipwrecked horses” of the 1600s.

Most Chincoteague ponies have a pinto or painted coat color, although the animals can be found in all equine hues. They generally stand 14 hands or less and are well proportioned with a balanced conformation.

These are compact and sturdy ponies, with a well-rounded rump and thick, low-set tails. Leg bones are dense, strong and sound making the ponies excellent long distant runners and light feathering on the fetlocks contributes to their unique appearance. As to temperament, the herds on Assateague Island demonstrate the high intelligence of the breed, but are essentially feral with the disposition of wild ponies.

Domesticated Chincoteague ponies are gentle, good-natured and versatile, considered easy to train as hunter, driving and trail ponies. Regardless of their present day lifestyle, all Chincoteague Ponies possess the romance and mystique of their storied heritage.

(Originally published in the December/January 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).

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