The Wild Island Ponies
The beautiful island of Assateague off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland is home and heartland to the hundreds of wild ponies who dwell there, and it has been that way for almost 400 years. You may know of these ponies as the Chincoteague Ponies. Chincoteague is one of the larger of the many islands between the Virginia portion of Assateague and the Virginia mainland where the ponies are rounded up and auctioned off each year in July.
The origin of these ponies is unknown but it is speculated that they may be descendants of ponies who swam to shore from a shipwrecked Spanish sailing ship in the 1500s. It is also speculated that pirates may have put some of the ponies on that island to serve as food for later visits to the island. Yet another good possibility is that the ponies were being hidden on the island by early colonists. In trying to avoid paying taxes on them or having to follow fencing regulations, the colonists kept them there, where they could graze, reproduce, and take care of themselves until needed for farm use.
For the better part of the 400 years, these ponies did just that - took care of themselves. They were owned by private citizens who removed and replaced ponies when desired. It is believed that the first pony penning was held in the late 1700s for the purpose of establishing ownership of ponies.
During the 1920s, because access to the remote island was limited, two fires devastated the town of Chincoteague. To prevent this from happening again, a small group of men organized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company in May of 1924. However, the Fire Company needed money to purchase the needed equipment, so they decided to make pony penning and sales a yearly fundraising event. In exchange, the Fire Company became responsible for the welfare of the wild herds, a job they took very seriously. Their careful supervision of the ponies enabled them to purchase the needed fire-fighting equipment.
Now that the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company of Virginia owns the Virginia herd, the ponies are closely monitored and managed; they are also observed for behavioral research. Each band of ponies is assigned a letter, and each pony a number. Every pony has an identity. Each has been photographed to show its specific colorings and markings as well. Most of the ponies have also been named. The Chincoteague ponies graze on the lands owned by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and a limit of 150 animals has been established.
The ponies are accustomed to humans because of the frequent observation and visitors to the island. They do not appear to be "wild", yet they are wild in the sense that they take care of themselves and reproduce as they please. Their hooves are trimmed by nature. Their coats are groomed by each other, by birds, and by rolling in the sandy soil. Rubbing and rolling in certain vegetation and walking through thick brush helps repel insects. Swimming in the ocean also provides insect relief. Their teeth are naturally worn down by the vegetation and apparently have few problems. They breed themselves, wean themselves, leave the herd, and reestablish the pecking order when necessary. And the grazing variety on the island is obviously nutritionally adequate.
Saltmarsh cordgrass, a salty, abrasively fibrous grass, and to a lesser extent, American beachgrass, make up the bulk of their diet. The ponies also enjoy eating poison ivy, prickly greenbriar stems and soft, green sandbur thorn balls found in the dune grass During the winter, the ponies chew the poison ivy vines, stems of shrubs, and bayberry. They dig up roots with their hooves and eat seeds from the grasses, rose hips, and crabapples. The best nutrition, however, is derived from sea vegetation washed ashore. Seaweed is high in protein and other nutrients.
Though the islands are surrounded by salt water, fresh water holes can be found in the higher, middle parts of the island. Salt water is drinkable in small amounts, but the ponies prefer the fresh water, which nature provides from rain and underground seepage.
In 1975, nearly half of the Virginia herd tested positive to the Coggins test for Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA). The positive ponies appeared healthy in spite of the diagnosis, but according to Virginia law, the positive horses needed to be quarantined or destroyed. They were quarantined, separated by several miles from the other ponies on the island, for three years. During this time, they reproduced plentifully, and nearly every foal tested negative for EIA. The uninfected foals were sold at the auction; the rest of the horses were destroyed to make room for 40 adopted mustangs, few of which survived due to the different conditions on the island. Throughout history, other horse and pony types have been introduced to the island herds resulting in a wide variety of colors.
The Assateague ponies live approximately 20 years; their shortened life span is due mostly to the abrasive grasses wearing the teeth down and lessening the ability to chew and extract nutrients. The ponies, when it is time, typically leave the herd and wander off to die, usually out of and away from their home range. The dead animals, whose bodies drew life from the island, are left to decompose and recycle their flesh back into the soil of the island.
The annual Pony Swim begins with the herds on Assateague being rounded up by "firemen cowboys" and coaxed to the channel to swim across to Chincoteague. The channel is crossed, during low tide, at one of its narrowest parts where the water is not very deep, but it is deep enough so that the ponies do have to swim. A boat accompanies them in case there are any problems. The horses ridden in the roundup cross by boat.
Once ashore, the ponies are rested, examined by veterinarians, then guided through the streets of Chincoteague to the pens where they will be rested again, fed hay and water, sorted, and numbered for auction.
Most of the foals are auctioned off. Each one gets a numbered sticker on its rump and will be separated from his mother and his herd. One by one, the foals are guided to the auction ramp by the strong yet gentle arms of the volunteer firemen. The auctioneer chatters and the audience bids. The pony foals are taken off to their new homes, and the remaining ponies are escorted back to the channel where they then swim home to Assateague.
The Pony Auction not only provides a source of revenue for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, but it also serves to trim the herds' numbers. To retain the permit to graze on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the number of ponies must not be more than 150.
The ponies seem to have an inborn kind and gentle nature. They make wonderful companions for people of any age. They are healthy, strong, intelligent, and willing, and they adapt well to new surroundings and situations. Nature is truly and simply marvelous, and the Chincoteague ponies are living proof
Natural Horse Magazine thanks Jim Russell of the Chincoteague Pony Association for his help in preparing this article.
The annual Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen's Carnival and the Pony Round-up and Swim are held in July on Chincoteague Island. It is an entire month of fun on the island, beginning with the 4th of July celebrations and ending with the swim, the pony auction, and the return swim. The carnival runs into August. The 1999 event will be the 74th Annual Fireman's Carnival. All money raised from these events is used to continue the work of the volunteer company.
1999 Fireman's Carnival:
July 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24, 26 to 31, Aug 6, 7
Pony Swim: Wednesday, July 28 (swim to Chincoteague) & Friday, July 30 (swim from Chincoteague) any time from 6 am to 11 am
Pony Auction: Thursday, July 29, 8 am to 12 noon
For additional information about the ponies:
Chincoteague Pony website, www.beach-net.com/chincoteague
Chincoteague Pony Association
P.O. Box 691
Chincoteague, VA 23336
The book "The Assateague Ponies" by Ronald R. Keiper
Misty of Chincoteague Foundation, Inc.
P.O. Box 4352
Charlottesville, VA 22905