The Chincoteague Pony, also known as the Assateague horse, is one of the most beloved pony breeds in America. Besides Mustangs, Chincoteague Ponies are also the only other wild horse breed in the United States.
The story behind these sweet, sturdy, gentle ponies is much more complicated than one might think!
For starters, these ponies have lived on the island of Assateague off the coast of Virginia since the 17th century–even longer than the United States has been a country!
With that kind of long history, a massive annual event, and their very own immensely popular children’s book series, it’s not hard to see why horse lovers everywhere continue to fall in love with Chincoteague Ponies.
The Origin Story
The Chincoteague Pony didn’t become an official registered breed until 1994, but the island ponies have been around much longer than that.
A few hundred years ago, a Spanish ship was wrecked off the coast of Assateague Island. Some of the horses on board that ship survived and swam to the shore. Chincoteague Ponies are the descendants of those survivors.
On Assateague, the surviving horses and their ancestors have lived wild ever since. This makes Chincoteague Ponies one of only two breeds of wild horse in the United States. The other is the beloved Mustang.
Although Chincoteague Ponies are still a wild breed, that doesn’t mean that humans haven’t gotten involved. By as early as the 17th century, residents of nearby towns on the shore gathered annually for Pony Penning.
Pony Penning was an event where residents of the neighboring island of Chincoteague would round up some wild ponies on both Chincoteague and Assateague to bring home and sell or keep.
The event included plenty of eating, drinking, and marveling at the ponies. It was based on an earlier Sheep Penning tradition, but Pony Penning became so popular that Sheep Penning was swept aside and eventually abandoned by the early 1900s.
A Town In Need
The next chapter of the story of these wild ponies begins in 1925.
In 1925, the Town of Chincoteague experienced several major fires and the villagers realized that they needed to dramatically upgrade their firefighting equipment. Their problem was that they didn’t enough money to fund such a big project.
To raise money, the Town of Chincoteague gave the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company permission to use the Pony Penning event as a financial asset by holding a carnival.
That year, the Pony Penners also chose to start a new tradition.
Instead of transporting the ponies by boat, the Pony Penners drove the ponies into the Assateague Channel, which separates Assateague from Chincoteague at low tide. The wild ponies were compelled to swim across the channel, toward more Pony Penners who were waiting on the shore of Chincoteague Island to catch them.
After a vet inspection and a rest period, many of the foals would be separated from the herd and sold at auction. Over a dozen of the foals sold in 1925 went to benefit the fire department.
Turning The Tides
This adjustment was a novelty that interested crowds across the country. It became the main event of the Pony Penning tradition, and by 1937, crowds of up to 25,000 came to watch the Chincoteague Pony Swim.
Using revenue from the carnival and from pony benefit sales, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was able to update all its equipment. In 1947, the fire department started assembling its very own herd to gain more consistency and control over its yearly revenue.
That same fire department hosts the carnival and owns the main herd of Chincoteague Ponies to this day.
Immortalized In Literature
1947 was a big year for the Chincoteague Pony. That same year, Marguerite Henry, a horse-savvy author, published a book called Misty of Chincoteague. The book follows the story of a Chincoteague Pony foal who is born wild, captured in the Pony Penning, and sold to two children.
Misty of Chincoteague became wildly popular and brought the little Chincoteague Pony even further into the limelight. More and more people flocked to Chincoteague to attend the yearly Chincoteague Pony Swim.
Henry wrote several more books about Misty, her ancestors, her owners, and her breed. These books are horse classics, known and appreciated by horse lovers near and far. Even today, over 70 years later, Misty of Chincoteague continues to delight young readers and draw them further into the world of horses.
From 1947 on, Chincoteague Ponies have only gained more fame and more protections.
After Assateague Island was established as a state park–the Assateague Island National Seashore–in 1965, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company obtained a license allowing them to move their herd to Assateague permanently.
Because the fire department was a public entity, the Chincoteague Ponies were able to be processed under a public property license while all private horses were prohibited. The Chincoteague Ponies have lived on their ancestral home of Assateague, specifically in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Rescue, ever since.
The Present Day
Many elements of the original Pony Penning and Auction day, as it came to be called, have stayed the same.
Crowds from around the country and sometimes around the world gather at the Chincoteague carnival grounds on the third Thursday of July. Pony Penners known as “Salt Water Cowboys” round up the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s herd and swim the ponies to Chincoteague.
On the other shore, the majority of the foals are auctioned off and the remaining adult ponies are returned to Assateague Island. Some foals are returned to Assateague with the adults to maintain the herd population.
Often, the foals returning to Assateague are sold at auction with the stipulation that the buyer immediately donates the pony back to its original owners. The buyer is then allowed to name the horse and is given a certificate commemorating their donation.
Surprisingly, these donated foals are often the most expensive sales at the auction!
One of the biggest differences between the Chincoteague Pony herd in the 1940s and the herd that exists today is that the current herd is monitored and kept healthy throughout the year.
Besides the July Pony Penning, there are two more roundups: one in the spring and one in the fall. At these Assateague Island roundups, all the ponies are seen by a vet who evaluates their overall health and makes sure that any injuries or illnesses are tended to.
The vet also works with the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to keep the herd population under control by using birth control for the mares.
Each mare is prevented from foaling before the age of four for her own safety. When the mare has reached adulthood at age four, she is not given birth control and is allowed to produce one healthy foal. Following a healthy foal, the mare is put back on birth control.
This arrangement is good for everyone!
The natural environment is protected from the negative effects of pony overpopulation. The mares are saved from the stress of repeated pregnancies, allowing them to live longer and healthier lives. And with a controlled number of foals still being produced, outside buyers can purchase a Chincoteague Pony foal to take home.
Chincoteague Ponies are known for being tough and compact ponies, sturdy enough to survive on the wild marshes of Assateague. They are able to grow thick, shaggy coats in the winter
Because of their origins in the wild, Chincoteague Ponies also tend to be easy to keep compared with other breeds. While carefully bred domestic horses can afford to be a bit fragile, Chincoteague Ponies are built to survive on their own, without human intervention.
Best Friend Material
In terms of personality, Chincoteague Ponies are usually loving and sweet. They are easily pleased by the luxuries of human care and tend to form strong bonds with people.
Their gentle and willing attitude makes Chincoteague Ponies a popular children’s pony. Chincoteague Ponies also excel as sport ponies, driving ponies, trail ponies, and western pleasure ponies, among other things.
In the wild, Chincoteague ponies survive off of the coarse grasses that grow on the marshy terrain of Assateague Island. Those grasses are extremely high in salt content, so to compensate, the ponies drink twice as much water as a normal horse.
Breeding And Uses
Most Chincoteague ponies are not bred. Instead, the ponies are left to breed in the wild, and foals are collected and sold each summer. In an average year on Assateague, about 70 new foals are born.
Since Chincoteague Ponies are not bred in captivity, there is no specific use that they have been bred for.
Chincoteague Ponies stand around 12 to 13 hands tall, or 48 to 52 inches tall at the shoulder. They are usually between 800 and 900 pounds. Since they are below the cut-off point of 14.2 hands, they are considered ponies.
What Breeds Make Up The Chincoteague Pony?
The oldest ancestors of the Chincoteague Pony are Spanish horses that swam ashore in the 17th or 18th century. Other ancestors include Shetland Ponies and various other breeds introduced by citizens of Chincoteague.
These ancestors make the Chincoteague Pony more horse-like than other pony breeds since their pony height is primarily a result of poor nutrition in the wild over generations.
In the 1900s, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company added some Arabian blood to their herd. This made the breed a bit taller, standing up to 14 hands. It also evened out some of the Chincoteague’s proportions.
Chincoteague Ponies can come in any solid color, but most of them are paints. Both skewbald and piebald paint variations are common.
Other common colors include bay, sorrel, and strawberry roan.
What Do They Look Like?
Modern Chincoteague Ponies tend to have short legs with light feathering and nice, strong hooves. Their most noticeable feature is their thick mane and tail, along with their thick and shaggy winter coat.
Chincoteague Ponies also have an overly round belly, which is a result of excessive drinking. The reason they drink so much is that over the centuries, they have adapted to the high-salt diet that was available to them on the marshes of Assateague.
What Are They Used For?
Chincoteague Ponies are well-suited for any kind of riding. English and Western are both suitable for this pony since they are small, quite sturdy, and easygoing.
Chincoteague Ponies can do well everywhere—dressage, hunt seat, jumping, western pleasure, trails, driving, and more. Due to their sweet nature, Chincoteague Ponies make for great children’s ponies or lesson ponies for beginner riders.
Where Do They Live?
Chincoteague Ponies still exist in the wild on Assateague Island to this day. The island of Assateague became a state park in 1965, ensuring that the wild ponies would always have their ancestral home available to them.
Because Assateague Island stretches between two states, there are two distinct herds on the island today. These herds are kept separate by a fence along the state border.
The Maryland Herd
To the south, there’s the Maryland herd, which is currently managed by the National Park Service. This part of the island is home to about 80 ponies who are fully wild, with no human help or hindrance besides birth control to keep the population from overrunning the area.
A pony in the Maryland herd is usually referred to as an Assateague Pony since ponies in that herd live their whole lives uninterrupted on Assateague Island.
The Virginia Herd
To the north is the Virginia herd of about 100-150 horses. This herd is still owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, the same company that began the tradition of the pony swim in 1947. The north herd is contained to one of two grazing ranges at a time to allow the excluded land to rest and regrow.
The fire department continues to host its annual Pony Penning and Auction every July, selling Chincoteague Pony foals to eager owners. These owners take their ponies wherever they please, so besides the island of Assateague itself, it is impossible to pinpoint one location where all of the captive Chincoteague Ponies live.
How Long Do They Live?
Both in captivity and in the wild, Chincoteague Ponies live as long as other horses, typically into their late 20s and early 30s. For the wild ponies, their life expectancy is a result of human intervention.
To minimize damage to the natural environment and to the other species on the island, the National Park Service keeps the wild herd down to about 80-100. They control the population through birth control shots and typically only allow each mare to have one foal.
Without the strain of constant motherhood, Chincoteague Pony mares get to enjoy their full life expectancy. Before birth control was implemented, mares only lived to around 15.
How Fast Are They?
Chincoteague Ponies are quite fast for a pony breed but not unreasonably so. They are not bred for racing, but they may enjoy speed competitions such as lower-level show jumping, competitive driving, or endurance trail riding.
How Much Do They Cost?
Chincoteague Ponies are often less expensive than other horses. Their smaller size makes feed cost less than for a full-sized horse and allows for smaller pasture arrangements, which may save money when boarding the pony at someone else’s barn.
In addition, Chincoteague Ponies generally require less upkeep than other horses. Their thick, shaggy winter coats—a necessity for surviving in the wild—will often keep them perfectly warm without the need for a blanket.
Are They Good For Beginners?
Chincoteague Ponies are a great choice for beginner riders. They have the kind of patient and willing nature that is perfect for working with clumsy riders who are still learning to control their bodies.
With the Chincoteague Pony’s long and intriguing history, it’s no wonder that these tough little island ponies have captured the hearts of so many people. Without a doubt, the Chincoteague Pony is one of the most well-loved breeds in America today.
Their shipwreck and survival story alone would make Chincoteague Ponies a notable breed, but the history goes so much farther than that. Over the course of hundreds of years, Chincoteague Ponies have survived and even thrived where not much else could.
Marguerite Henry, the author of the book Misty of Chincoteague, changed countless children’s lives when she wrote her story about a young Chincoteague Pony foal who was born wild, rounded up in the annual Pony Penning event, swum across the Assateague Channel, and bought by two children to tame and raise.
Even though there are less than 1500 Chincoteague Ponies in existence today and not nearly enough to go around, many a child’s dream horse is a Chincoteague Pony. Those lucky enough to have a Chincoteague Pony of their own praise them for their gentle and patient nature, their versatility, and their loving hearts.
Visit The Islands!
Because Assateague Island is a state park, there are plenty of programs available for people who would like to visit this historical place. Chincoteague Ponies still roam the beaches, and while visitors are not permitted to touch the ponies, visitors can come camp, picnic, hike, kayak, and more with Chincoteague Ponies all around.