Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg

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Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge,

 Assateague Island, VA

Chincoteague, a small island community on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, historically made its living from the sea. It has long been world-famous for its oysters. In 1947, Marguerite Henry's book Misty of Chincoteague brought the tradition of island pony penning to the attention of children all over the world. Today the promise of both tasty seafood and a glimpse of wild ponies brings thousands of annual visitors to this unique little island.

Although there are festivals and activities in Chincoteague year-‘round, the biggest tourist draw is the ponies, which live across the channel in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island. Every year public interest climaxes in a Pony Penning. The event is well attended by spectators, and covered by news media around the globe.

 Annually, on the third Wednesday and Thursday of July, Saltwater Cowboys gather more than 200 free-roaming ponies on their Assateague home ground, swim them across the channel to Chincoteague, and sell spring foals at auction. Pony Penning is the culmination of the month-long Firemen’s Carnival. Two or three days before the drive, Saltwater Cowboys ride to Assateague on their own horses, gather the ponies that live on the Virginia end, and secure them in holding pens. On Wednesday, they herd them to the water’s edge where they wait for slack tide, the time of the least current. The Coast Guard fires a red starburst rocket into the air to signal the start. As thousands watch, the Cowboys press the ponies into the channel for the seven-minute swim to Chincoteague. The ponies emerge from the waters into a lush green meadow, rest before a contingent of admiring onlookers, and then parade up Main Street to the carnival grounds. The following day, young foals are removed from the herd and sold to begin new lives as domestic horses. Each year certain foals, usually fillies, are designated buy-backs. These foals are sold at auction to charitable individuals who donate them back to the fire company for re-release on Assateague as breeding stock.

  Chincoteague was a small fishing village accessible only by boat, with schools, a post office, and many homes, mostly made of wood. The streets were narrow, and the houses were built close together. When a building was destroyed by fire early in the 1900's, people realized that they needed to purchase fire fighting equipment and train a team how to use it. They bought a hand pump engine, and later a gasoline engine. But when a serious fire struck fifteen years later, the neglected equipment malfunctioned. Twelve homes and businesses were lost. Four years later, another fire took most of the buildings on the west side. Chincoteague residents vowed that this preventable tragedy would never recur. In May, 1924, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was born. To raise money for fire equipment, the annual Firemen’s carnival was organized, which included the round up and auction of the Assateague ponies. Revenue from annual carnivals and auctions allowed the fire company to keep pace with the requirements of a growing population.

The development of wetlands and the black market for waterfowl and their feathers was pushing many native species to the brink of extinction. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 as a breeding and wintering area for migratory and resident waterfowl on the Virginia part of Assateague. The refuge protected about 9,000 acres (3,642 ha) of coastal wetlands and wildlife. The land in question, however had been free-range grazing land for hundreds of years, and locals petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue this generations-old practice.

Rachel Carson, world-renowned marine biologist, environmentalist, and editor-in-chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in 1947 that when the refuge was created, the agency permitted residents of Chincoteague to graze 300 head of horses and cattle on the refuge, and noted no adverse effect on waterfowl. (This is twice as many head as permitted today.) “The presence of these grazing animals is not detrimental to the waterfowl for which the refuge was established,” she said. (See http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=usfwspubs)

          Later, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the cattle and opposed the ponies as a nuisance that trampled vegetation and competed with the birds for forage. They erected fences to restrict their range to only 5 percent of the refuge. Almost all of this land was salt marsh, which provided abundant food, but no way to escape the torment of insects, and no high ground to climb in storms. When the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 flooded the Assateague lowlands, 22 ponies in the refuge drowned (as well as about 100 on Chincoteague). In 1965, the fences were reconfigured to give the ponies access to high ground and to let them range more freely.

         In 1947, Marguerite Henry published the best-selling book, Misty of Chincoteague, which became a successful movie in 1961. This fictionalized account of the Assateague ponies and the adventures of two Chincoteague children remains popular today and contributes to tourist traffic to Chincoteague.

Misty was a real pony, born on the Beebe ranch and not on Assateague, like the Misty in the book. Marguerite Henry fell in love with the week-old Misty while visiting Chincoteague, and bought her. Paul and Maureen Beebe, who inspired the characters by the same name in the book, halter broke and gentled the pony during her stay on their ranch. When Misty was weaned, Henry had her shipped out to her home in Illinois to provide inspiration while she wrote her famous story. While the story line of Misty is not factual, the setting is true to life, and Henry presents a fairly accurate portrayal of pony penning around the 1940s.

         Legends tell of Spanish shipwrecks that brought the ponies to Assateague Island. Scientists and historians, however, tend to believe that they descend from livestock that grazed Assateague as early as the late 1600s.

          Over the years, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company has increased the genetic diversity of the herd by purchasing ponies that were true to the original bloodlines from local owners and by introducing outside horses. Historic accounts indicate that until the early 20th century, Assateague ponies were mostly chestnut, bay, brown, or black and showed conformation very similar to the North Carolina barrier island herds. Rugged Shetland ponies were introduced to the herd in the 1920s to give the ponies flashy pinto coloring. Bob Evans, an Ohio restaurateur, donated two buckskin Spanish Barb stallions. In 1939, the fire company brought in twenty mustangs from the West, and in 1978 added forty more. The addition of the forty mustangs in 1978 was in response to an outbreak of Equine Infectious Anemia that reduced the herd substantially. In 1975, half the herd tested positive, and affected individuals were destroyed three years later to halt the spread of the disease. Mustangs were brought in from the West to revitalize the gene pool and rebuild the population. But as hardy as these mustangs were, many could not adapt to barrier island life and died within the first year.

         The Fire Company gatherers the ponies three times a year for vaccinations, worming, veterinary inspection, and farrier attention.  The animals breed at will, but foals are sold at auction each July, the proceeds benefitting the fire department.   

          Assateague Island is fortunate to have escaped the clutches of civilization, although man has left his mark in many places. The Wildlife Refuge is easily accessible to visitors. Many come to see wild ponies, but birdwatching is also popular, especially during spring and fall migrations. Massive flocks of snow geese make their dramatic entrance in November., The lighthouse is open for climbing, and there are excellent hiking and biking trails. - The ponies are abundant, not at all shy of visitors, and easily viewed from an observation platform or fences along the roadside. Barbed wire keeps them off the pavement and away from people. Separation is safer for both ponies and visitors, but can make it difficult to view them at close range. When they are on the refuge, good photographs usually require a telephoto lens. The Chincoteague Natural History Association offers educational bus tours to parts of the refuge that are otherwise only open to pedestrians, complete with a knowledgeable guide. You will almost always see ponies, often at close range, as well as waterfowl and other wildlife. Additionally, numerous boat tours take visitors to Assateague and afford intimate views of ponies and other wildlife.  

          While Chincoteague watermen still ply their trades in the nearby sea and sounds, this seven mile long barrier island is clustered with tourist-driven businesses, and remains lively with visitors though most of the year. Whether you are visiting to relax on the beach or enjoy the little shops, Chincoteague is a world apart.



Visiting Chincoteague &

Assateague Island, VA


Campground, hotel, motel, or B&B -- whatever your style,we can point you to great local lodging.


Respect free-roaming horses as wildlife. Keep at least the length of a large bus between you and the horses at all times., And try not to disrupt their behavior with your presence.



Chincoteague Links


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