The origin of the feral ponies on Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia is a subject that has sparked a great deal of debate among horse lovers. While some have suggested that Spanish horses were abandoned on the island by pirates or Indians, there are two main theories.
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service:
A theory with more historical evidence, is that the ‘Chincoteague Ponies’ are descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague Island in the 17th 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.
While there is no doubt that colonial horses were kept on Assateauge, they usually were not allowed to go completely feral because they were far too valuable. A herdsman lived on the island to take care of all the livestock pastured there, and inventories were maintained to keep track of the ownership of the horses.
It is still possible that some of the colonial horses contributed to the present-day Chincoteague pony, but it is also possible that the old legend is correct and a shipwreck brought Spanish horses to Assateague. Some stories state that this wreck occurred in the 1500s or 1600s. However, it is certain that a Spanish galleon known as the La Galga wrecked on Assateague in 1750 during a hurricane while sailing from Cuba to Spain. Spanish archives record that the wreck was covered by sand in about three days and that the sailors were rescued by Native Americans. While there was no record of horses on board the ship, archival and archaeological evidence from other Spanish ships demonstrates that an inventory of horses was not kept if they were the private property of soldiers.
Interestingly, the estate records of the American colonists began mentioning a “beach horse” within a few years of the wreck of the La Galga, evidently distinct from other types of horses kept on the island (most of the domestic horses on Assateague were killed in a storm the year before the La Galga ran aground). A final point in favor of the Spanish shipwreck theory is the genetic similarities between the Chincoteague and the Paso Fino, a Caribbean breed of Spanish descent.
Modern horse experts frequently state that the small size of the Chincoteague pony resulted from inbreeding over the years, but historical records inform us that remarkably small horses were found on Assateague before the American Revolution. Diet may be a contributing factor, since foals reared on the mainland and fed high-protein diets can reach the size of ordinary horses.
“Beach horses” attracted the attention of the mainlanders as early as the late 1700s. By that time there were ponies overrunning Assateague, and it became a popular sport to hunt them on horseback with dogs. Later, some of them were captured, branded, and added to the herds of various owners.
Pony Penning Day did not become a major event until 1922, however, when two fires devastated nearby Chincoteague. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department decided to auction some of the feral ponies to raise money for firefighting equipment. Visitors were already coming annually to watch the roundup; some of them would surely buy ponies.
The Chincoteague was launched to fame when beloved author Marguerite Henry took an interest in the breed and decided to use it as the subject of her first book. She fell in love with an attractive foal named Misty, born on the Beebe Ranch on the island of Chincoteague. Henry bought the foal on the condition that the upcoming book feature Clarence and Ida Beebe’s grandchildren Paul and Maureen.
In 1947 Misty of Chincoteague was published. Both Misty and her free-running relatives became instant favorites. Misty traveled to schools, libraries, museums, and theaters to meet her many fans before returning to the Beebe Ranch to be bred. Her first two foals were Phantom Wings and Wisp O’Mist, neither of whom have surviving descendants today.
Unfortunately, the devastating Ash Wednesday Storm hit the Virginia coast in 1962, killing about half of the ponies on Assateague, as described in another Marguerite Henry book, Stormy, Misty’s Foal. Misty was brought into the shelter of the kitchen of Clarence and Ida Beebe’s son Ralph and his wife Jeanette to have her third and final foal, Stormy. Stormy went on to produce all of the surviving Misty descendants, some of which are still raising their own foals today.
To revive the drastically reduced wild herd on Assateague, a number of horses of other breeds were introduced. Although few introduced horses have ever survived on Assateague, the modern Chincoteague breed may carry influence from Shetland and Welsh ponies, as well as Arabians, Morgans, Paints, and Quarter Horses.
In 1968, the ponies were separated into two herds, kept apart by a fence built across the island, which belongs to both Maryland and Virginia. The herd on the Maryland side of Assateague belongs to the National Park Service and is largely treated like other wildlife. The herd on the Virginia side is the famous herd owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. This group participates in Pony Penning Day every year. Because the some of the horses will be adopted and transported to the mainland, the Virginia herd receives more human care than the Maryland herd, including regular veterinary exams.
Today the Virginia herd of Chincoteague ponies is maintained at around 150 horses. The Maryland herd brings the total number of feral ponies to over 200. Many more ponies (probably over 900) are kept by private owners all across the United States and Canada.
The Chincoteague excels as a children’s pony. It does well under either an English or a Western saddle and can thrive on either slow-paced pleasure riding or in the competitive arena.
But the Chincoteague is not just for children. It makes a good trail or endurance mount for a small adult, and anyone can enjoy working with it in harness. It is suitable for both recreational driving and some light farm work.
The Chincoteague is full of personality, but also has a sweet nature. It responds quickly to kind treatment and will bond quickly with the humans in its life. It is decidedly outgoing, even to the point of being something of a show-off. This pony is smart, bold, playful, and independent, perhaps even a little mischievous at times, but rarely to the point of being obstinate or obnoxious.
Coming from a harsh environment, the Chincoteague is typically healthy and hardy. As a whole, this breed appears to have better resistance to colic than other breeds, and it does not need shoes under most conditions. Some older horses may develop swaybacks, particularly mares that have had many foals.
One problem affecting the breed is degenerative suspensory ligament disease. This disease appears to have some genetic basis and causes extensive damage to connective tissue in the legs, leading to lameness. There is no cure.
A particularly mysterious problem affects descendants of the wild mare Whisper of Living Legend. Most of her foals have died before weaning from unknown causes. A few survive to adulthood, but these often die of either colic or unknown causes. This phenomenon appears to be inexplicable at the present time.
- Natural cleanliness in both the pasture and the stall.
- Strong survival instincts.
- Adaptability, particularly to cold climates.
- Resistance to insect pests.
- Low feed requirements.
- Suitability for both children and small adults.
- Surprising speed for a pony.
- Scarcity and expense of the purest ponies.