When I was in the fourth grade, more years ago than I care
to remember, my teacher, Miss Sears, would read one
chapter of a book to the class each morning. I still
remember how excited I was when she chose Marguerite
Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague” as one of the books she
would read that year.
And as I was browsing through the horse-related news on
the Internet today, I came across an article suggesting
that the best time to view the Chincoteague ponies, for
which Misty has become an icon, is not during the annual
round-up in July, but when spring comes to the
Maryland/Virginia coast and they can be seen in their
The article jogged my memory of the tough little ponies,
so I decided to see how they have weathered since I first
learned of them all those years ago.
There are actually two herds of ponies sharing Assateague
Island. In 1943, the U.S. Federal Government bought the
Island and in 1965 made the Maryland end into a national
seashore. The southern end, where the Virginia ponies
were, became the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
The herds are kept separated by a fence which splits the
Island along the Maryland/Virginia State Line, and the
Maryland herd is managed by the U.S National Park Service.
The Virginia herd, on the other hand, has been owned and
managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company since
Legend has it that the earliest ancestors of today’s
Chincoteague ponies came to Assateague Island when a
Spanish galleon with a cargo of mustangs sank off the
island’s shore in the early 1600s. But logic would
indicate that they are actually descended from draft
animals which the early Virginia settlers turned loose on
the Island to feed. It is known that by 1700, Assateague
was supporting herds of cattle, sheep, and hogs as well as
In the three-plus centuries since the ponies arrived on
the island, they have evolved into hardy, wiry animals
standing between 13 and 14.2 hands, and weighing between
800 and 900 pounds. They were able to subsist only on the
marsh and beach grasses which constitute the island’s
major sources of forage. There were both mustangs and
Arabians introduced into the herds during the 20th
century, in an attempt to diversify their gene pool.
The modern version of the Chincoteague Pony Round-Up and
Swim began in 1927, when the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire
Department needed to raise funds to replace its obsolete
equipment. Every July they round up and pen their herd,
which numbers between 130 and 150 animals, and drive
them across the shallow waters separating Assateague and
Chincoteague Islands. Those ponies which are too weak or
young to make the swim are ferried across.
The majority of the foals are auctioned off to people who
come from all over the United States to participate.
A few foals are allowed to return to Assateague as
breeding stock, but the proceeds for the ones sold not
only supports the Fire Department, it lets the Fire
Department keep the entire herd vaccinated, wormed, and
provided with health checkups twice a year.
The Chincoteague Pony Auction has become so successful
because of the marvelous temperament and adaptability of
the ponies, which are extremely friendly, intelligent, and
tough. They have been used for everything from driving to
jumping, and while they can be any color, a large number
of them are pintos.
The Chincoteague ponies have remarkably durable feet, and
are best left barefoot; they will also thrive on a diet of
high-quality hay with a salt lick and plenty of fresh
Chincoteague ponies are now being bred across the United
States, so it looks as if the story of Misty, such a long
time ago, impressed more people than I ever imagined!