Every little girl wants a pony, it is said. And for decades, toy sellers have ensured the presence of My Little Pony on the wish lists of young children. Whether for Barbie or the American Girl doll, a pony is the perfect accessory. Big is the difference, however, between a story or a toy, and an actual, flesh-and-blood animal.
On the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July, as many as 50,000 spectators gather on Chincoteague Island to attend the annual Pony Penning and Swim. Each year, high bidders claim some 80 foals, for prices ranging from $800 to $10,500 — with the fundraising total reaching as much as $173,000. The auction has no registration: Anyone with enough money can walk away with a horse.
Horses have roamed freely on Assateague Island for more than 300 years. The horses of Assateague have adapted to life on the island, where nearly 80% of their diet consists of coarse salt marsh cordgrass and American beach grass. At the annual auction, many of the horses leave this life of freedom to become children’s gifts. At least one non-profit organization is set up just to help children who hope to acquire a “Chincoteague Pony.” And while many people decry the fate of horses bound for slaughterhouses, rarely do people ask why there are so many unwanted horses, or what happens when a nine-year-old tires of caring for the pony that looked so desirable from afar.
It began as a local custom of the most practical sort. In the 17th century, Eastern Shore farmers used barrier islands for grazing horses, cows, oxen, sheep, and pigs. By turning horses and other domestic animals loose on Assateague Island, settlers avoided the taxes and fence-building normally required by colonial legislatures for the purpose of preventing crop damage caused by free-roaming domestic animals.
Mainland residents would migrate to Assateague Island in order to capture the animals who roamed there. Penning is the process by which the animals were collected, claimed, branded, and broken. By the 19th century, the penning of various animals had become a well-established tradition.
In the early 1920’s, the annual event on Assateague Island was moved and combined with a similar event on nearby Chincoteague Island. At first, boaters moved the horses from Assateague to Chincoteague, but since 1925, the ponies have been forced to swim across the channel separating the two islands.
The annual Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival was first held in 1924 as a fundraising event for the newly formed fire company, and, except for 1944, has been held every year since then. At their first meeting, the firefighters decided to hold the carnival in conjunction with the traditional horse-penning event. That first year, the fire company sold 15 colts for $25 to $50 each.
In 1939, the Fire Company paid the Bureau of Land Management for 20 free-roaming mustangs to set free on Assateague; and in the 1940’s, the Company added Arabian horses, with the mission of enhancing the features and markings of the herd.
The federal government acquired Assateague Island in 1943, and erected a fence along the Maryland-Virginia border to divide the Assateague National Seashore Park on the Maryland side (administered by the National Park Service) from the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia side (administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company received a special-use permit from the Fish & Wildlife Service in 1946 to graze 150 horses on the refuge.
The population of horses on the Assateague National Sea Shore Park grew from an estimated 28 horses in 1968 to over 165 in 1997. The National Park Service, which now requires a maintained population of 120 to 150 horses, has worked since 1994 with a national animal welfare organization to develop population control that relies on an immunocontraceptive vaccine made from a protein derived form pigs’ ovaries.
The horses on the Chincoteague side, known as the Chincoteague Ponies, are confined by fencing to two sections of the refuge. The Fish & Wildlife Service claims that 150 horses are the most that the refuge can support. Proponents of the annual Chincoteague auction insist that the annual penning and horse auction serve to protect the refuge ecology.
Thus, the Chincoteague herd is rounded up and forced across the channel at low tide on the last Wednesday of July before the large crowd of thousands of spectators. After a brief rest, the horses are driven through the town to the Carnival Grounds where as many as 80 foals and yearlings will be auctioned off the next day. The first colt to reach the shore on the day of the swim is given away as a prize. The day after the auction, the remaining Chincoteague horses are driven back across the Assateague Channel.
The horses, if not the pennings and auctions themselves, are now famous throughout the country. Perhaps the single most significant factor for the perennial interest in this event is the story of Misty of Chincoteague. In 1947, Marguerite Henry published a children’s novel based on the experiences of a family who purchased a horse at the Chincoteague auction. The following year, Misty of Chincoteague received the Newbery Honor Award, and its story later became Hollywood’s Misty.
Several generations have grown up with the legend, and today the Chincoteague Ponies are a recognized breed. Many parents and young children are introduced to the “horse world” when they decide to acquire their first Chincoteague Pony — either from the annual auction or one of the many Chincoteague Pony breeders now located throughout the United States.
The Chincoteague Ponies, especially the descendants of the real-life Misty, are valued largely for the romantic quality attributed to them by the dreamers, young and old, who long for a Misty of their own.
This article is the first of a three-part series to be continued in our subsequent issues.