The Ponies on Assateague
There are several local legends about the origins of the ponies on Assateague. The most popular is that the ponies swam ashore from a Spanish ship that had run aground, while another story has it that they came from a wrecked ship that had been on its way to the English colonies. A third claims that pirates brought the ponies to the island.
In any event, the ponies have been on Assateague for about 300 years. While the early ponies had solid coloring, a good number now have brown and white patches due to interbreeding with new ponies brought to the island in the last hundred years. The mating season runs from around May to September; the young (one and sometimes two) are born about eleven months later.
While the ponies may show up just about anywhere on Assateague, on the refuge it's most likely that you'll spot them in the marshes on the south side of the island's main road. Sometimes, you'll find that the observation platform located along the Woodland Trail (map) is a good place to view them. And sometimes, as in the photo to the left, they can be seen along the Wildlife Loop.
Today, a fence on the state line between Virginia and Maryland separates the island's two herds of about 120-150 ponies each. The National Park Service watches over the Maryland herd on the northern part of the island, and the Virginia ponies--known as "Chincoteague ponies"--are the property of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.
Each year on the last Wednesday in July, foals and yearlings from the fire company's herd, escorted by Chincoteague cowboys, swim the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague. On Thursday they are auctioned off, and those that are not sold will eventually swim back to Assateague. (See also the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce web site - "Ponies & Fire Co." While pony penning on the islands can be traced back to the 17th century, the modern version was organized in 1924 by the fire company as a fund raiser.
Because the ponies graze on the salty marsh grasses--saltmarsh cordgrass and American beachgrass in particular--they drink much more than other horses and usually appear to be bloated or fat.
Chincoteague ponies sold by the Fire Company are eligible for registration in the Chincoteague Pony Association Registry.
Chincoteague Natural History Association
- The Chincoteague Ponies
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