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The Wild Ponies of Assateague

Travel Stage: On the Delmarva Peninsula, the Eastern Shore of Virginia
Date: April 10 – 15, 2016
Summary:  Caitlin’s childhood dream of seeing the wild ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague comes true!

misty of chincoteague

  The book “Misty of Chincoteague” was written by Marguerite Henry in 1958 and became an internationally bestselling children’s book. It is about one of the ponies from the wild island herd that can be found on Assateague Island off the east coast of Maryland and Virginia. The neighboring island, Chincoteague, has a small village that holds an annual round up and Pony Auction.

Being a horse-crazy young girl, I read Misty of Chincoteague and dreamed of a day where I would see the ponies myself. On a cold, windy, April day, that dream came true!

About the Ponies

​Assateague Island is a National Seashore protected by the Federal Government. The ponies, though, are “owned” privately by the Chincoteague Fire Company, who purchases annual leases to allow the herd of 140 ponies to graze on the land. Lots of shipwrecks off the Atlantic coast ​The ponies are believed to have swum ashore from wrecked Spanish galleons off the Atlantic coast hundreds of years ago. Over time the ponies have adapted to the harsh salt marsh environment, so much so that they became an official breed in 1994. These small but sturdy, shaggy horses have adapted to their environment over the years by eating dune and marsh grasses and drinking fresh water from ponds. ​

  ​One of the most fascinating things I learned about these ponies is that because of the high salt content of the grasses they eat, the Assateague Pony drinks 3 times as much water as a regular horse! As a result, they are constantly bloated hence their really round bellies. ​As previously mentioned, there are about 150 ponies owned by the Chinoteague Fire Company, but there are actually two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service, and has about 105 horses. 

Pony Penning Day

​Just like in the book, Chincoteague holds an annual pony round-up day every July. The “salt water cowboys” herd the ponies across the channel separating the two islands to the pony pens on Chincoteague Island. The Chincoteague Fire Company is limited to 140 horses in their lease, so when they reproduce they have to reduce the herd. Source: Wikipedia

  Tens of thousands of people come to the annual Pony Penning Day looking for an opportunity to take home one of the special island ponies at the auction. The first official Pony Penning Day was held in 1924, where ponies were auctioned at $25–50 each to raise money for fire equipment. As of 2015, the highest price paid for a pony was $25,000 and the lowest price was $500. Some ponies are purchased under “buy back” conditions, where the bidder donates the money to the fire department but allows the pony to be released back onto Assateague Island. Interestingly enough, the most expensive ponies are the Buy Back ponies. The winning bidder does get the honor of naming the pony and a certificate. All 140 ponies on the island are named and their stories can be found on the Chincoteague Pony Website.

Our Experience

Like every other day we were on the Delmarva, it was cold and windy. Despite this, the first thing we did when we got to Chincoteague Island was to follow some advice from a fellow Instagramer to go to the Island Creamery and get the island’s best ice cream! Oh man was it good.

  ​Once that priority was taken care of, we headed out to the Assateague National Seashore.

  ​As we drove into the park, we caught the faintest glimpse of some small specks of horses in the distance across the salt marsh. The ponies in this area of the island are fenced so you can’t actually get super close to them unless they happen to be at the fenceline. We continued on to a short hiking loop to hopefully get a better view. We also found the Assateague Lighthouse.

  ​We were shocked by the amount of storm damage there was everywhere. There were volunteers and staff out working to rebuild some of the boardwalk areas along the path. We came to an overlook that provided a view out over a large grassy marshland with a few clusters of trees. The ponies were still way off, but we could start to tell their colorings and see them through our camera zooms.

  ​Our hiking took us out to the seashore. We were surprised by all the rubbish on the shore including fishing nets, parts of buildings, and other garbage. It is amazing what the storms pull up! The park has its work cut out for themselves to clean up all this mess.  

  ​After our hike, we drove back over to the main viewing strip. A group of ponies had wandered a bit closer now, but our cameras and binoculars were still needed to get a good view. No matter of telepathic begging and wishing brought them any closer, but they were still so beautiful and peaceful to see!

Assateague National Seashore

​We drove out to the ocean shoreline. This area has large sand dunes that you can drive on if you have the right permits (and the right vehicle). On our way out we saw a lone pony across a tidal pool from us. He was not in the fenced area, so must have gotten out. 

  The seashore itself was quite something. If it weren’t for the wind, we would have stayed a while to enjoy it some more.

  ​After we had seen all the ponies we were going to see, we headed back out to Chincoteague to see the little town, get the obligatory photo with the “Misty” statue, and peruse a couple gift shops for postcards.

Next Time

​While I was super pumped to go to Assateague and Chincoteague, I have to say I was a little disappointed that the ponies were so far away. While talking to some fellow campers, we learned that there is another way to experience the Assateague ponies. ​Remember how the heard is divided in two? The other group is located on the Maryland side of the Assateague Island. There is a campground out in the National Recreation area, and campers told us that they’ve had ponies come right up into their campsites! ​So next time we are on the East Coast, we’ll be checking out this side of the park to see just how close these wild ponies can get!

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