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Swimming to Stardom

Meet the Famous Chincoteague Ponies of Assateague Island

Some books are timeless classics among the horse crazy; we’re talking Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara, and of course, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. In light of Etalon Equine Genetics’ partnership with the International Chincoteague Pony Association & Registry, it’s only fitting that we introduce you to these small, sturdy ponies that have captured the hearts of horse lovers across the globe for decades.

History of the Herd

Despite their name, the Chincoteague Ponies actually live on nearby Assateague Island off the coast of the Maryland-Virginia border. Assateague Island has been home to wild ponies for hundreds of years. Some have said that the ponies of Assateague were originally set free on the island by early settlers to forage. However, it is more likely that they survived one of the many shipwrecks that occurred in the area while being transported to the Colonies or South America.

The Chincoteague Ponies are made up of two herds. The herds are separated by a fence that lies on the Maryland-Virginia border and each herd is managed by their own respective state. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service and is comprised of approximately 80 ponies. The Virginia herd, which is the one most are familiar with, has been owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company since 1925.

It is the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company that holds the famous pony swim and subsequent auction. The auction serves two purposes: to control the size of the herd to comply with a grazing permit that the Fire Company purchases annually from the National Fish & Wildlife Service, and to raise funds for their veterinary care, as well as for fire fighting equipment.

Each summer, the Ponies plunge into and swim across the Assateague Channel that separates Assateague Island and Chincoteague Island. They are assisted by a group of volunteers, known as the Saltwater Cowboys, who ensure their safety during the swim and afterward as they make their way to the local Chincoteague Island carnival grounds. The auction is held the following day so that the Ponies have a chance to rest.

A Breed of Their Own

While the ponies have been around for hundreds of years, they did not become an officially registered breed until 1994. Chincoteague Ponies are known for their thick manes and stocky bodies with short legs. They typically average between 12 and 14 hands in height. The ponies often have round bellies due to the fact that they eat saltwater cord grass, which as the name implies, has a high salt content. Because of this, the ponies drink about twice as much water as a normal horse which gives them a bloated appearance.

The ponies branch off into small groups, called bands, within each of the two larger herds on Assateague Island. Each band is composed of one stallion and a varying number of mares, along with their offspring until they reach sexual maturity. At that point, the young horses are often chased out of their band to integrate with a new band in order to prevent inbreeding. This is incredibly important for the health of the breed overall, especially since 75% of mature Chincoteague Pony mares have a foal each year, which is a high number for wild horses. This amounts to an average of 70 new foals being born into the Virginia herd each spring.

Plunged Into the Public Eye

The Chincoteague Ponies became internationally known in 1947 when Marguerite Henry published her novel, Misty of Chincoteague. Marguerite visited Chincoteague in 1946 to search for a story for a book. It was during her time there that she met the real-life Misty, her dam, Phantom, and her sire, Pied Piper, at the Beebe Ranch. The owners of the ranch, Clarence and Ida Beebe, were breeders of Chincoteague Ponies who would go on to lend their ponies’ and grandchildren’s names and likenesses to the characters in Marguerite’s book. In the novel, Misty was born on Assateague Island and her parents were members of the wild pony herd.

Marguerite fell in love with Misty during their time together and purchased her from the Beebe’s once she was weaned. Together they toured the nation to meet Misty’s fans at schools, libraries, movie theaters, horse shows, and museums and share the story of the Chincoteague Ponies. After 10 years together, Misty returned to the Beebe Ranch in 1957 so that she could have her own foals.

Misty would go on to have three foals: Phantom Wings, Wisp O’Mist, and Stormy, who was the inspiration for a book sequel, Stormy, Misty’s Foal. There are a growing number of ponies being genetically linked to Misty, but as of 2015, there were over 200 horses confirmed to be her direct descendants. Through Etalon’s partnership with the International Chincoteague Pony Association & Registry, we hope to help grow that number.

The Chincoteague Ponies are a unique breed with a rich history made famous by Marguerite Henry’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague. These small, sturdy ponies have captured the hearts of horse lovers around the world for decades. It is the hope of both Etalon Equine Genetics and the International Chincoteague Pony Association & Registry that through our partnership there are many more generations of ponies to come.

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