There are several theories of how the ponies got to Assateague. The one you probably know is that a Spanish galleon heading for Central and South America ran ashore and sank nearby. No crew survived, but the horses broke out of their stalls and swam ashore. This theory is very possible because there are hundreds of documented shipwrecks off the coast. (In fact, our infamous shoaly coast is why they built the Assateague Lighthouse.)
Another theory is that there were colonists who turned their livestock onto Assateague to avoid paying taxes. Since it was an island, the livestock couldn’t escape– but, horses being horses, they got lose and were never able to be rounded up. Yet another theory is that Blackbeard kept a wife on Assateague, and as his crews would pillage and raid, they would take the horses and drop them off with his wife. Again, horses being horses, they got loose and became wild.
Whatever theory you want to believe, the mysterious ponies found their way to Assateague and adapted to the unique challenges that come with barrier island life. They grew thick, shaggy coats. They adapted to a diet largely consisting of salt marsh grasses, which stunted their growth from the height of full-fledged horses to more of a pony stature. And, much to the surprise of many of our visitors, they found fresh water and managed to survive, and even thrive.
The Chincoteague ponies’ largest claim to fame is Marguerite Henry’s children’s book Misty of Chincoteague. The book is about Paul and his sister Maureen who lived on Chincoteague Island with their grandparents. Paul and Maureen helped their grandfather raise and train ponies and they dreamed of owning a pony of their own. They named her Misty.
While the events in the book are fictitious, Paul and Maureen were real children, and their Grandpa Beebe had a horse farm on Chincoteague where a pony named Misty lived. The founder of the Refuge Inn, Donald Leonard, was very close with Grandpa Beebe, and spent a lot of time at his farm. He even retrieved the real Misty from her home with Marguerite Henry to bring her back to Chincoteague to have foals. There is even a photo of Don with his oldest son Carlton, sitting on Misty’s back.
Every July, the Virginia herds, which are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, are rounded up and herded to a narrow point between their home island of Assateague and neighboring island Chincoteague.
Saltwater Cowboys swim the ponies across the channel and parade them down Main Street to the carnival grounds, where the foals who are old enough to be separated from their mothers are auctioned off. The Fire Company says the swim and auction serves two purposes: It controls the herd size, as the island can only support about 150 adult ponies, and also ensures that our local firemen and paramedics are well-funded and appropriately equipped to serve our island’s needs.
The Pony Swim is a big event that draws tens of thousands of visitors to our little island. If you’re lucky enough to be planning on coming for the swim, be aware that there’s a whole week’s worth of activities to enjoy. Most hotels on the island have a minimum stay.
Monday: Northern Herd walks down the beach at Sunrise
Tuesday: Northern and Southern Herds visible at the holding corral on Assateague. Tuesday evening, pick up your Wednesday morning breakfast to-go bag at the front desk so you can hit the marsh early for a good spot.
Wednesday: Ponies swim the channel at slack time between 7am and 1pm. Time to be announced the week before the swim. First foal to reach shore is named King or Queen Neptune; Ponies parade down Main Street to the carnival grounds.
Thursday: Auction starts at 8am
Friday: Adult ponies from the Southern Herd swim back to Assateague and, after a good roll, go on about their normal lives.
Each year, the Fire Company selects a few foals to return to the island and replenish the herd. They tend to pick the cream of the crop to send back over to Assateague– for example, famed stallion Surfer Dude sired a colt in 2009 that looked a lot like him, a liver chestnut with blue eyes and a white blaze. He was marked as a “buyback” and now he’s grown up and has the largest band of mares on Assateague. You can easily identify the “buybacks” by the freeze branded of the year they were born on their left hip. The buybacks each year are auctioned off, with the winning bid amount given to the Fire Company as a donation. The winner names and takes a picture with their buyback, and sends it back to Assateague to live out its life.