Are Chincoteague Ponies Wild

Ellen Grant
• Friday, 16 October, 2020
• 11 min read

Two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. Each year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchases a grazing permit from the National Fish & Wildlife Service.

pony chincoteague assateague wild wikipedia wiki
(Source: en.wikipedia.org)


This permit allows the Fire Company to maintain a herd of approximately 150 adult ponies on Assateague Island. The Fire Company controls the herd size with a pony auction on the last Thursday in July.

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. Some have suggested that the wild ponies of Assateague trace their origin to horses released to forage on the Island by early settlers.

However, the evidence strongly suggests that they are the descendants of the survivors of a Spanish galleon which wrecked off the coast of Assateague. Penning began as a way for livestock owners to claim, brand, break and harness their loose herds.

By the 1700s it had become an annual event, complete with drinking, eating and plenty of revelries by the entire community. Word of the events began to spread, and hotels and boarding houses were booked for the festivities.

In 1925 the town authorized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to hold a carnival during Pony Penning to raise funds. Bolstered by the interest in the pony swim, visitors began arriving from across the country for the annual penning.

chincoteague wild ponies being preview herd
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The increased revenue from the carnivals and auctions enabled the fire company to modernize its equipment and facilities, and in 1947 it began to build its own herd by purchasing ponies from local owners. That same year, 1947, Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague, the story that made Pony Penning internationally famous.

The tale of the wild pony Phantom, her foal Misty and the children who buy and raise her has become a classic, still loved and enjoyed by each new generation. “Salt Water Cowboys” herd the horses across the narrowest part of Assateague Channel at low tide, after which they are examined by veterinarians.

After a resting period, they are herded through town to a corral at the Carnival Grounds where they stay until the next day's auction. The Pony Auction not only provides a source of revenue for the fire company, but it also serves to trim the herd's numbers.

Each year thousands of people flock to Chincoteague Island to watch the Pony Penning and enjoy the Firemen's Carnival. For many of them, the trek to the shores of Assateague Channel on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July has become an annual event, an opportunity to participate in a tradition older than the country itself.

ChincoteaguePonies are stocky, with short legs, thick manes, and large, round bellies. The Ponies primarily eat the salt water cord grass that grows in the marshes on Assateague Island.

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(Source: www.petmd.com)

The dominate stallion will kick his male offspring out of the band after a couple of years, once the colt has reached sexual maturity. Young bachelor males tend to form their own small band, until they become big and strong enough to begin fighting for and winning mares from other stallions.

A buyback pony is auctioned with the stipulation that it will be donated back to the Fire Company and returned to Assateague Island to replenish the herd. A theory with more historical evidence, is that the ChincoteaguePonies are descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague Island in the l7th century by Eastern Shore planters when crop damage caused by free roaming animals led colonial legislatures to enact laws requiring fencing and taxes on livestock.

Prior to the refuge's establishment in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchased the ponies and continues ownership to this day. The Firemen are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies on refuge land through a Special Use Permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and is grazed in two designated compartments on the refuge. Following tradition, the Fire Company rounds up the entire herd for the Annual Pony Penning and Auction held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July.

Chincoteague another namesAssateague horseCountry of origin United States TraitsDistinguishing features height: 13.2 hands (54 inches, 137 cm) all colors Breed standards Chincoteague pony, also known as the Assateague horse, is a breed of horse that developed and lives in a feral condition on Assateague Island in the states of Virginia and Maryland in the United States.

chincoteague ponies wild discrimination possible
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The breed was made famous by the Misty of Chincoteague series of novels written by Marguerite Henry starting in 1947. This is due in part to their smaller stature, created by the poor habitat on Assateague Island.

Variation is found in their physical characteristics due to blood from different breeds being introduced at various points in their history. They can be any solid color, and are often found in pinto patterns, which are a favorite with breed enthusiasts.

Island Chincoteagues live on a diet of salt marsh plants and brush. This poor-quality and often scarce food combined with uncontrolled inbreeding created a propensity for conformation faults in the Chincoteague before outside blood was added beginning in the early 20th century.

Several legends are told regarding the origins of the Chincoteagueponies ; the most popular holds that they descend from survivors of wrecked Spanish galleons off the Virginia coast. It is more likely that they descend from stock released on the island by 17th-century colonists looking to escape livestock laws and taxes on the mainland.

Although popularly known as Chincoteagueponies, the feral ponies actually live on Assateague Island. The entire Island is owned by the federal government and is split by a fence at the Maryland/Virginia state line, with a herd of around 150 ponies living on the Virginia side of the fence, and 80 on the Maryland side.

chincoteague island assateague ponies pony wild swim annual swimming virginia cavalli crossing across famous channel va ocean liberi julho dia
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The Virginia ponies are treated to twice yearly veterinary inspections, which prepare them for life among the general equine population, if they are sold at auction. Horses with pinto coloration tend to sell for the most money at the annual auction.

Due to outside bloodlines being added to the Chincoteague herd, there is some variation in physical characteristics. In general, the breed tends to have a straight or slightly concave facial profile with a broad forehead and refined throat latch and neck.

The breed's legs tend to be straight, with good, dense bone that makes them sound and sturdy. In terms of health, they are generally hardy and easy keepers (able to live on little food).

Another story holds that they descend from horses left on the island by pirates. Evidence points, however, to their ancestors actually being horses brought to the islands in the 17th century by mainland farmers.

While the National Park Service holds to the theory that the horses were brought to the island in the 17th century, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the ponies on the Virginia side of Assateague, argues that the Spanish shipwreck theory is correct. They argue that horses were too valuable in the 17th century to have been left to run wild on the island, and claim that there are two sunken Spanish galleons off the Virginia coast in support of their theory.

chincoteague wild ponies foals
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Misshapen legs, narrow chests, poor bone and a lack of substance plagued the breed, with many stunted animals not growing above 12 hands (48 inches, 122 cm). This was partially due to the limited and poor-quality feed found on the islands, although this harsh habitat also allowed only the hardiest and most adaptable ponies to survive.

Welsh and Shetland pony blood was added to upgrade the stock, and horses with pinto coloring were introduced to give the herd its common distinctive patterns and contribute to the more horse-like phenotype of the breed. In August 1933, a hurricane created an inlet south of Ocean City, Maryland, separating the two landforms.

After the storm, between 1933 and 1935, a permanent system of artificial jetties was built to preserve the inlet as a navigation channel. As a result of the jetties disrupting sand movement in the area, the island has drifted considerably westward, and the two landmasses are now over 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) apart.

In 1835, the first written description of “pony penning” (roundup) appeared, though the practice of rounding up livestock on the island existed for many years before that. In 1909, the last Wednesday and Thursday of July were designated as the annual days for pony penning, still taking place on both Assateague and Chincoteague Islands.

In 1924, the first official Pony Penning Day was held, where the foals were auctioned at $25–50 each to raise money for fire equipment. Currently, as many as 50,000 visitors gather on the last Wednesday in July to watch mounted riders bring the Virginia herd from Assateague and swim them across the channel to Chincoteague Island.

chincoteague ponies history beach
(Source: chincoteague.com)

The swim takes five-ten minutes, with both the rider and the observers on hand to assist horses, especially foals, who may have a hard time with the crossing. The latter is open only to horses purchased from the annual auction, while the former maintains a breed registry and studbook that registers all ponies, including those from private breeders.

Though descended from the same original stock, the Maryland feral ponies are called “Assateague horses” and are maintained by the National Park Service. The Virginia feral ponies are called Chincoteagueponies and are owned by Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.

In 1943, the entire island was purchased by the federal government and divided into two protected areas, Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The feral ponies in both herds separate themselves into small bands, with most consisting of a stallion, several mares and their foals.

Ponies on Assateague have a diet that consists mainly of cord grass, a coarse grass that grows in salt marshes, which makes up around 80 percent of their food. This diet is supplemented by other vegetation such as rose hips, bayberry, Greenbrier, American beach grass, seaweed and poison ivy.

The increased amount of water that they drink contributes to many ponies appearing to be bloated or fat. Its presence on a relatively small and naturally confined area has made it ideal for scientific study.

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(Source: www.littlethings.com)

Since the late 1970s, scientists have used the herd to conduct studies on feral horse behavior, social structure, ecology, remote contraceptive delivery and pregnancy testing, and the effects of human intervention on other wild animal populations. There are few other wildlife populations of any species worldwide that have been studied in as much detail over as long a period as the Maryland herd of Chincoteagueponies.

Ponies often come into close contact with humans, even in their native environment. Herd numbers grew from 28 to over 165 between 1968 and 1997 and overgrazing negatively impacted their living environment. To manage population numbers, long-term, non- hormonal contraceptives have been employed, proving 95 percent effective over a seven-year field trial.

The contraceptive, which began to be used at a management level in 1995 although it was used in smaller amounts as early as 1989, has also proven effective at improving the health and increasing the life expectancy of older mares through the removal of pregnancy and lactation-related stress. Since 1990, general herd health has improved, early mortality has decreased and older ponies are now found, with many over the age of 20 and some even over 25.

No horse has ever been injured during the dart -administered treatments, although there is a 0.2 percent rate of abscess at the injection site, which normally heals within two weeks. Each mare between two and four years old is given contraceptives, and treatment is then withdrawn until she produces a foal.

Once she has produced enough foals to be well represented genetically within the herd, she is placed on a yearly treatment plan until her death. After the introduction of the contraceptive, herd numbers continued to rise to a high of 175 in 2001 to 2005, but then dropped significantly to around 130 in 2009.

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Other than the contraceptive and treatment in emergencies, ponies from the Maryland herd are treated much like other wildlife, with no extra attention paid to them by Park Service employees. It is thought likely that the Maryland herd carries equine infectious anemia (EIA); they are effectively quarantined, however, by allowing no riding or camping with privately owned horses along the mainland shore during the insect season which stretches from mid-May to October.

Due to their treatment as wild animals, ponies from the Maryland herd can be aggressive, and there have been reports of them tearing down tents and biting, kicking and knocking down visitors. In 2010, after an increase in biting incidents, the National Park Service implemented new measures for educating visitors about the ponies.

These measures included new safety information in brochures and recommended viewing distances between the visitors and the ponies. Since 1943, the FRS has been working on the island to protect and increase the wildfowl population, and their efforts have sometimes endangered the Chincoteague herd.

Due to the placement of fences by the FRS, a reduced amount of land is available for grazing by the ponies. The fencing also prevents them from reaching the sea, where they often went to escape biting insects, including mosquitos.

In 1962, several ponies were trapped in an enclosure by high water and died when they were carried out to sea during a storm. Since 1990, the ponies from the Virginia herd have been rounded up biannually for veterinary treatment, including deforming and vaccinations for diseases such as rabies, tetanus and Eastern and Western encephalitis, although they make the swim to Chincoteague only once per year.

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In addition, continual monitoring and basic first aid for any minor injuries is performed by a committee from the fire department. Such intervention is needed because many of the ponies will be brought into the general horse population through the auction and purchase by private buyers.

The real Misty was foaled on Chincoteague Island in 1946, and was purchased as a weaning by Henry. The publicity generated by the books assisted the Chincoteague Fire Department and the breed in remaining viable into the 21st century.

While fictionalized, the books were based on a real horse and ranch on Chincoteague Island. ^ “The Equine FFV's: A Study of the Evidence for the English Horses Imported to Virginia before the Revolution”.

^ a b Expert, Lori S.; Powell, David M.; Ballot, Jonathan D.; Male, Aurelio F.; Turner, Allison; Khmer, Jack; Zimmerman, Carl; Fleischer, Robert C.; Maldonado, Jesús E. (2010). “Pedigrees and the Study of the Wild Horse Population of Assateague Island National Seashore”.

“Immunocontraceptive Reproductive Control Utilizing Porcine Zone Pellucid (Pop) in Federal Wild Horse Populations” (PDF) (2nd ed.).

wild ponies chincoteague island horses swamp cancer
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1 en.wikipedia.org - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Forest_pony