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The Legend of the Chincoteague Pony: the Misty Ponies of Assateague Island
On the barrier island of Assateague, off the eastern coast of Virginia, live two herds of wild ponies. These hardy animals have become famous world-wide for their calm disposition, hardiness, and good looks. These traits have made the Chincoteague pony the choice of equestrians across the country.
According to the legend, the first ponies arrived on the island when a Spanish galleon sank off the coast of Assateague. The ship was believed to have been carrying a live cargo of Spanish Moor ponies. The ponies that survived the shipwreck swam ashore onto Assateague beach and lived wild and free for many years. The island provided a perfect grazing land for the ponies. They adapted well to the environment over the years. Another assumption of the ponies origin is that they are the descendants of herds that were turned loose by the first settlers. However the ponies got to the island, the legend of the shipwrecked Spanish galleon stands firm.
Once a year, the neighboring island of Chincoteague holds the annual Volunteerr Fire Department's Carnival and Pony Swim. The tradition started as early as the 1830's, but was made an official event in 1925 after the town of Chincoteague was nearly destroyed by fire. Realizing the fire fighting equipment was out-dated, the town appointed the Volunteer Fire Department to organize a carnival and pony swim to raise money for new equipment. On the last Wednesday in July of each year, the volunteer firemen, nick-named 'Saltwater Cowboys', round up the ponies on nearby Assateague and swim them across the channel, at low tide, to Chincoteague. Once on land, they parade the ponies down Main Street to the carnival grounds where the younger foals are auctioned off to the the highest bidder. The first Pony Penning was successful enough to raise money to improve the fire fighting equipment. Since then, the traditional event has continued to sustain the fire department of Chincoteague, as well as the local economy.
The wild ponies of Assateague were made famous in 1947 when Marguerite Henry, an author of children's literature, published the book "Misty, of Chincoteague." The book, based on real characters from Chincoteague, centered around the story of a wild mare and her filly who were bought and tamed by two local children, Paul and Maureen Bebee. Young readers were thrilled and excited with the story of Misty. Sequels followed, and the Chincoteague ponies became more popular than ever. Every child longed for a pony like Misty! The Pony Penning crowds grew each year. In July of 2001, the crowd was estimated to be about 50,000. The town gives Marguerite Henry the credit for making the ponies famous. There is a memorial to Ms. Henry in Chincoteague, as well as a separate memorial to Misty.
As each Pony Penning comes and goes, more people flock to the island to catch a glimps of the famous ponies. As long as children continue to read the Misty books, there will be an extended interest in the breed. The ponies' intelligence, gentle spirit, and stamina draw the attention of horse lovers across the country. As long as the legend lives on, the Chincoteague pony will remain a treasured breed to horse lovers everywhere, both young and old.
Author's post script: In 2001, I fulfilled my childhood dream of attending the annual Pony Swim and Pony Penning day. As the Saltwater Cowboys cracked their whips, the crowd began to cheer as the ponies made their way into the water. I began to cry with joy and anticipation as my childhood dream, at last, became a reality. How exciting it was to see such a trememdous crowd! The people shouting, ponies snorting, and the smell of the salt water marsh....! The ponies swam the channel in 2 minutes, although it seemed to take an hour. Once ashore, they shook their bodies and began to whinny for their babies. Then, they were herded down Main Street to the Pony Penning grounds. The next morning, the auction was held. One pony, a black and white Pinto, sold for $10,000.00! Incredible! It was an experience I'll never forget. I plan to return to Chincoteague for a future roundup and purchase my own pony. Until then, I will cherish the memory of my first Pony Penning day and encourage families and friends to visit this wonderful place!! And while you're there, visit the home of Misty!
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CHECK OUT THE PICTURES OF THE PONY SWIM BELOW AND ABOVE!
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- Chincoteague Island Accommodations
Chincoteague Island's travel guide for the Chincoteague Virginia area.