Chincoteague Pony Origins

Guest blog post from Ayden Leonard
From Chincoteague Pony Farm & Daisey’s Island Cruises

Most of you have heard about the wild ponies of Assateague, but how many have heard the lore about their origins? Seeing as horses, or ponies in this case, aren’t native to North America, they must have a story about how they got here. This tale begins by learning a little bit about these salt marsh dwelling ponies.

Nobody truly knows what makes up a Chincoteague Pony.  They are the mutts of the equine world. “A Heinz 57 variety,” as Refuge Inn founder Donald Leonard often said. The volunteer fire company has made several efforts to mix up the genetics over the years.  One such experiment was to introduce fifty mustangs from out west to the herd.  While they had some offspring, all of them died in a few years due to their inability to adapt to the salt marsh diet.

Another introduction to the bloodline came in 1995 in the form of an authentic, purebred arabian stallion by the name of “Premier.” This attempt proved more successful. The lucky stallion was introduced to sixteen Chincoteague mares and out of those pairings came ten half-arabian, half-chincoteague colts.  While Premier didn’t live very long on Assateague, his bloodline is alive and strong there today–you can see that distinct small head and thick neck that mark Arabians in many of the ponies in the wild herds.

Little-known fact!  Before being released on Assateague, Premier spent some time on the Leonard farm.  He spent some quality time with long-time Refuge Inn pasture resident Sandy Pony, and fathered “Mooney,” a bay filly who also spent her years at the Refuge Inn pasture.  Mooney’s daughters Luna and Martha have taken her place at the Refuge now.  Those two still run like Arabians, necks forward and tails out, despite being mostly Chincoteague.

Now to my favorite part, the history. There are several theories as to how the ponies arrived on Chincoteague. For starters, let’s talk about the theory popularized by Marguerite Henry in the book “Misty of Chincoteague.” It is said that on one stormy night, a ship carrying ponies to the mines of South America suddenly struck a shoal off the coast and began to sink. That’s when the panicked stallion kicked a hole in the hull of the wooden ship, and swam to shore with his herd of mares. Some may say this sounds a little far-fetched, but the La Galga and the Juno were documented ships that were carrying ponies from South America back to Spain and wrecked off of Assateague.  In both of those shipwrecks, most of the crew survived and washed up to shore. But there were no ponies in sight– did they go down with the ship, or did they swim to shore and run free before the sailors could find them? Nobody will ever know.

Another theory is that the infamous pirate Blackbeard had a wife that lived on Assateague, and as he would raid villages on the coast of the Carolinas, where wild ponies were plentiful, he would bring them back to her on Assateague. I know it sounds corny, but it’s definitely not beyond the realm of possibility–considering his many wives stretched along the Atlantic coast, and how familiar he was with the area.

The third (and my personal belief, if I’m being honest,) is that during the colonial times, the settlers in the area, being the practical, resourceful folk they are, had a hand in this. I think our ancestors were tax evaders. Back in then, settlers were taxed per head of livestock.  When the tax man came ‘round to collect, the ponies were secretly penned up in the trees over on Assateague. Ponies being ponies, they got out of the fence and began to roam freely around Assateague Island. Some of them weren’t worth catching, especially considering how many miles of wilderness Assateague was in those days.  The ponies living on Assateague today still get out of fences and do whatever they please– at least until the Fire Company gets out there to round them back up.  As a matter of fact, famed stallion Riptide snuck around the fence and took a leisurely walk over the bridge to Chincoteague a few years back. Another intelligent stallion had his own “pony swim” when he brought his mares across the Assateague Channel at the traditional swim site, a week ahead of schedule.

Anyway, back to the tax evasion.  If you were a colonist, trying to make a living, angry at the king for imposing taxes on your livestock, wouldn’t you have done the same thing?  You knew the tax man wouldn’t go looking in the brush for some ponies he’d never seen before. That whole island is made up of brambles and sand dunes and marsh muck so thick it could gobble you up– it’s not the sort of place you’d just go scope out on a whim.  So anyhow, this theory seems to be the most logical explanation.

Refuge Inn founder Don Leonard certainly treated this story as “the real deal,” and told it in a number of interviews.  He would probably know more than anyone alive today, seeing as his love for the ponies was life-long and runs deep.  As a child, whenever anyone was looking for Donald, his mother just told them to follow the ponies and they’d find him.  He grew up hanging around Clarence Beebe before the time of “Misty” and, as an adult, served as Chair of the Pony Committee for many years.  He bought land on the northern tip of Chincoteague in order to have grazing land to keep his own herd.  When he did so in the early 60’s, everyone told him he was crazy.  These days, that land (which is where the Baywatch House & Baywatch North are located) is as close to heaven as you can get.

The passion seems to run in the family, too. His son Arthur, one of the current owners of the Refuge Inn, rescued an orphaned foal named Miracle Man (and several other foals over the years) and is a “Saltwater Scowboy” who assists with roundups and the pony swim by boat. His sons Hunter and yours truly provide year-round care for the ponies and ride in the roundups on horseback, in addition to wrangling the wild foals on auction day.

All three of us also give boat tours, where we tell these stories and field questions about the horses.  We often say something like, “For all the hopeless romantics, all the kids-at-heart, all the people who want to believe– we’ll go right along with you and secretly hope that hundreds of years ago, a ship wrecked off of the coast and a few ponies escaped and swam to shore.  It may not be the most likely story, but it is certainly the best.”