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What is a Chincoteague Pony?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The Chincoteague Pony is a type of feral horse found on Assateague Island, an island off the coast of the American state of Virginia. The ponies have come to be associated with the neighboring island of Chincoteague as a result of an annual pony round-up and sale which has been held since the 1700s to manage the herd on Assateague Island. The Chincoteague Pony entered popular consciousness in the late 1940s by way of Misty of Chincoteague, a children's book written by Marguerite Henry.

Chincoteague Ponies are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “wild horses.” In fact, they are not wild at all, but merely feral, meaning that they are descended from a population of domestic horses. Popular legend states that the ponies are the descendants of Spanish horses who escaped from a sinking ship, but they actually have more mundane origins, being descended from horses released by settlers of the region. Feral horses on the island have been documented since the 1600s, along with feral sheep, dogs, and cats.

Assateague Island is actually divided in two by a fence, since it straddles the border between Maryland and Virginia. On the Maryland side, the horses are managed by the National Parks Service, while the horses on the Virginia side are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which leases their half of the island from the National Parks Service, with the agreement that the herd will be kept to around 150 individuals. The Fire Department also takes care of regular medical care for the ponies, including vaccinations for equine diseases and deworming.

In July every year, the ponies on the Virginia side of the island are swum to Chincoteague during a slack tide, and foals and yearlings are auctioned off to keep the size of the herd under control and to support the fire department. The annual Chincoteague Pony sale is a big event which attracts people from all over the world, and buyers are asked to prove that they have humane transportation and housing for the ponies they purchase.

There is no official breed standard for the Chincoteague Pony. Many of the ponies are pintos, but they come in every color, and some will grow to full horse size when offered a more nourishing diet than the one available on Assateague. The horses are famous for being very rugged, thanks to the harsh environment they call home, and they also tend to be extremely intelligent.

Several associations preserve the history and heritage of the Chincoteague Pony, and pony owners around the world can register their horses with these groups, should they so desire.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Chincoteague Pony and where does it originate from?

The Chincoteague Pony is a breed of small horses found on the Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. They are believed to have descended from Spanish horses that survived shipwrecks centuries ago. These hardy ponies have adapted to the harsh, marshy environment of the island.

How big do Chincoteague Ponies get?

Chincoteague Ponies are typically between 12 and 13.2 hands high, which is about 48 to 54 inches at the shoulder. Despite their small stature, they are not considered miniature horses but rather fall into the pony category due to their size and other distinctive characteristics.

Are Chincoteague Ponies wild?

Yes, Chincoteague Ponies are considered wild, as they live in a feral state on Assateague Island. They are managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and the National Park Service to ensure their health and the ecological balance of the island. Annual round-ups help manage the population and check their health.

What is the annual Pony Swim and Auction?

The annual Pony Swim and Auction is a tradition where Chincoteague Ponies swim across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague Island. This event, held on the last Wednesday of July, helps control the pony population. Ponies are auctioned off, and proceeds benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which cares for the ponies.

Can Chincoteague Ponies be ridden?

Chincoteague Ponies can be trained to be ridden and are known for their gentle nature and intelligence. They are versatile and can excel in various disciplines, including trail riding, driving, and even jumping, making them suitable for both children and adults in equestrian activities.

What is the conservation status of Chincoteague Ponies?

Chincoteague Ponies are not currently listed as an endangered species. Their population is managed to prevent overgrazing and environmental damage on Assateague Island. The annual auction helps maintain a healthy population size, which is typically around 150 adult ponies, according to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company's management practices.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon86208 — On May 24, 2010

Nice article, but I'd like to offer a couple of corrections: the fire department leases grazing rights from the Fish and Wildlife Service (not the National Park Service), which manages the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the VA end of Assateague.

The fire department has made many introductions to their herd over the years of some other breeds of horses, which is more likely the reason for any foal reaching 14.2 when raised as a domestic. Good feed can't override genetics that much if both parents were in the 12-13 hand range.

- a Chincoteague pony fan

By lamaestra — On Apr 30, 2008

I loved that book when I was a little girl! I will always think fondly of Chincoteague ponies. I really wanted to see a herd of them. And see ponies swim!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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