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Chincoteague Pony
North America

Breed Organization Information

Misty of Chincoteague Foundation, Inc.
PO Box 212
Chincoteague, VA 23336
Tel: (847) 439-2049
Fax: (847) 439-2071
[email protected]

About the Breed

The Chincoteague and Assateague Ponies inhabit the 37-mile, barrier island of Assateague off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. Both herds are essentially the same except for the area of the island on which they graze, divided only by a fence which is an extension of the border between the two states. These small, hardy horses have been the source of great intrigue and speculation throughout their history on the island, from how they arrived there to the love affair created by Marguerite Henry's children's book, Misty of Chincoteague and the annual "Pony Penning" event.

How did these horses come to inhabit this unlikely spot? The most romantic idea has it that a 16th century Spanish galleon bound for South America was torn asunder off the shoals of Assateague Island during a violent storm. After escaping from the cargo hold, the horses it carried swam to the safety of the island's nearby shore. Another legend would place the horses on Assateague Island in the 17th century, turned out there to graze by mainland farmers who wished to avoid fencing requirements and the payment of livestock tariffs. However they reached Assateague, the horses soon adapted to the rigors of island life. Natural selection helped them evolve into a pony-sized, hardy breed over the next two centuries. As they flourished in a young country, so did the people who settled there.

Immigrants found Virginia a most hospitable place to live, the climate was temperate, the soil fertile and the sea held great bounty. By 1671, some had found their way to Chincoteague Island (meaning Beautiful Land Across Water). Barely seven miles long and one and a half miles wide, Chincoteague is located four miles off the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay and sheltered from the unforgiving sea by its larger neighbor, Assateague.

Most of the inhabitants of Chincoteague earned their livelihood from the sea, yet a few remained herders and farmers. During the late 18th century, they began the process of capturing the wild horses of Assateague, which often swam the narrow dividing channel to raid farmers' crops. Selected horses were pulled from the herd to be domesticated, the rest returned to freedom, where they continued to breed.

Islanders found the ponies to be sturdy, intelligent and willing, ideal for work and pleasure. The thinning process also controlled the equine population and prevented overgrazing of the island's limited resources. Although Assateague remained uninhabited by man, it sheltered a thriving wildlife population of ponies, deer and birds.

By the early 1900s, the Virginia coast had become a popular destination for tourists and sportsman alike. Chincoteague and Assateague had hitherto only been accessible by boat, but the influx of people spurred natives to build a causeway and bridges connecting them to the mainland in 1922. Even though this made travel easier, two devastating fires served as a harsh reminder to the community of their relative isolation and lack of emergency services.

Determined that history not repeat itself, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department was formed in 1924, and quickly became the backbone of the community.

The Fire Company faced the dilemma of such groups everywhere; a lack of funds to purchase sorely needed equipment. Members brainstormed for moneymaking ideas, and soon lit upon a unique solution. They would make pony penning and sales into a yearly fundraising event. In exchange, the Fire Company would assume responsibility for the welfare of the wild herd, a task they took very seriously.

This event began in some form during the 17th century when unclaimed horses were captured and marked by colonists in the presence of neighbors on a day of fellowship and festivity. The modern Pony Penning began in 1924 and is still held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. The Virginia herd, rounded up by the Chincoteague "saltwater cowboys", swims across the channel (at slack tide) to Chincoteague on Wednesday in front of thousands of cheering spectators. The swim takes about 5 - 10 minutes. Most of the foals are auctioned off on Thursday and the remaining horses swim back to Assateague on Friday. New owners must be able to provide safe, humane transportation for their purchases. Most foals are easily tamed and adapt well to domestic life.

Pony penning proved successful, with animals fetching $25-$50 apiece, and attendance grew with each passing year. However, by the early 1930s, members of the Fire Company began to feel concerned about the lack of genetic diversity within the herd. An attempt to infuse new blood was made in 1939, when 20 wild mustangs were purchased from the Bureau of Land Management and set free on Assateague. (Later genetic contributions were to come from the Arabian breed, as it was felt that the Mustangs might have temporarily diluted the breed's tendency to throw a large percentage of paint markings and more refined features.

In 1943, the federal government purchased Assateague Island and divided it: the Maryland end became Assateague National Seashore Park, the southern end Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the ponies are split into two main herds, one on the Virginia end and one on the Maryland end of Assateague. A fence at the Virginia/Maryland State line separates the herds and the population size of each herd is kept around 150 animals to lessen their impact on island ecology.

Both herds are managed differently. The National Park Service owns and manages the Maryland herd while the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd. The Virginia herd, referred to as the "Chincoteague" ponies, is allowed to graze on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, through a special use permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The size of both herds is restricted to approximately 150 adult animals each in order to protect the other natural resources of the wildlife refuge.

In Virginia, the "Pony Penning" event is responsible for meeting the limit of 150 adult animals. The Virginia herd undergoes a veterinarian check twice a year. In the spring (April) they are vaccinated against encephalitis (both eastern and western strain), rabies and tetanus and tested for EIA (Equine Infectious Anemia or swamp fever). They are also de-wormed and some horses have their hooves trimmed. In the fall they are de-wormed again and all horses have their hooves trimmed. The horses on the Virginia side of the island are also fenced off from road areas to stop people from feeding them and attracting them to cars and roadways, where they have been fatally injured in the past.

In Maryland, the number of horses has grown from approximately 28 in 1968 to more than 165 in 1997, exceeding the desired herd size of 120 to 150 animals. With this growth has come increasing evidence that the horses are having a significant negative impact on the dune and salt marsh habitats due to overgrazing. By establishing a population limit of 120 to 150 animals, the National Park Service is attempting to balance the health and well being of the horses with the need to protect the island's other sensitive natural resources and values. To manage population growth on a long-term basis, a unique contraceptive has been developed for use in the Maryland herd. Administered by dart guns, the non-hormonal contraceptive vaccine stimulates the horse's immune system to produce antibodies. At sufficiently high levels these antibodies block fertilization and thereby prevent pregnancy. The contraceptive effect is temporary, lasting about one year, but can be extended with an annual booster shot. During seven years of experimental field trials, the technique has proven better than 95% effective and has exhibited no harmful side effects. Use of the contraceptive as part of a long-term horse population management program began in 1994.

Today, Chincoteague Ponies may be found throughout the United States. Known for their striking looks, good nature and intelligence, they are beloved family members. In addition, Chincoteague Ponies excel at a variety of competitive endeavors and are often a child's first introduction to the horse world.

Ponies have become a thriving industry on Chincoteague Island. The pony motif can be found incorporated in many aspects of everyday life, and the ponies themselves are seen as a living piece of history. To that end, the Chincoteague Pony Association was formed in 1994, and serves both as a membership organization and breed registry.

Misty of Chincoteague

Although the ponies of Assateague Island were a popular area attraction, it was not until Marguerite Henry, a well-known author and lifelong equestrienne, visited the island in 1946 that the Chincoteague breed gained national recognition. Her book, Misty of Chincoteague was published to critical acclaim in 1947. It detailed the true story of a local family named Beebe, and their acquisition of a young chestnut and white paint filly the previous year. Misty of Chincoteague was soon hailed as a children's classic, and the real-life pony became an overnight sensation. Children from all around the country wished for a Misty of their very own. So well known had the ponies become, that when a crushing storm ruined almost all the island forage in 1962, children from virtually every state in the nation sent money from their piggy banks to aid in the pony relief effort. Henry was to later collaborate with illustrator Wesley Dennis on a sequel entitled Stormy, Misty's Foal (published 1963), and with illustrator Karen Haus Grandpre on Misty's Twilight (published 1992), thus introducing several successive generations to the wonderful Chincoteague Pony.

Although she has long since passed away, Misty is far from forgotten. Each year, among the crowds that flock the shoreline to view the pony swim, excited cries may be heard from children. "Where's Misty?" "I think that one looks like Misty!"

Breed Characteristics

Because the Chincoteague Pony is a hybrid whose breeding program is largely left to natural selection, conformational traits may vary among individuals. Most ponies tend to resemble the Welsh or Arabian breeds, although Mustang blood is obvious in others. The head is expressive, with broad forehead; large, soft eyes, straight or slightly dished short face; firm muzzle; small, wide-set, tipped-in ears; tapered muzzle, large nostrils and rounded jowls. The body is clean with a, moderately refined throat latch and neck; well-angulated shoulder; broad chest and loins; short back; deep flanks; well-sprung ribs; round croup; straight, sound legs with dense bone and an appearance of overall hardiness; round, hard hooves; adequate mane and tail. The Chincoteague Pony can be found in all common colors, with many pintos among them.

Today's horses are actually the size of ponies (average 12- 13 hands) probably due to their poor diet and harsh environment. Some horses removed from Assateague as foals and fed a higher protein diet grow to horse size. Almost 80% of their diet is coarse salt marsh cordgrass and American beach grass. Various grass species, greenbrier stems, bayberry twigs, rose hips, seaweed and poison ivy make up the rest of their diet. The high concentration of salt in their diets causes the horses to drink twice as much fresh water as domestic horses. Because of this, the horses have a "fat" or "bloated" appearance. Although they will sip salt water, they actually drink very little of it.

Breed Organization

Misty of Chincoteague Foundation
The Misty of Chincoteague Foundation is a nonprofit corporation established in 1990 by Marguerite Henry, author of Misty of Chincoteague and Rebecca Giusti, one of the author's many fans. The goal is to purchase and preserve as much as possible of the remaining Beebe Ranch on Chincoteague Island, and to establish an educational museum on the site of Misty's original home to protect letters, photographs, and other memorabilia for the enjoyment of future generations.

Chincoteague Pony Association
Since the Chincoteague Pony is a recognized breed it was determined that there was a need for a registry of the Chincoteague Ponies. In the summer of 1994, The Chincoteague Pony Association was founded. All ponies sold by the Chincoteague Fire Company are eligible for registration in the Chincoteague Pony Association. All proceeds generated by the Association go directly to the care, maintenance and support of the ponies for items such as, but not limited to, feeding, veterinary bills, inoculations, etc.