Chincoteague Ponies - America's Unique Breed

The following article and photographs are reproduced by kind permission of Gale Park Frederick, Founder of The National Chincoteague Pony Association and

There is a race of hardy ponies that live on the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. The ponies are a race of small horses, compact and good nature. The legend is that these ponies swam ashore from a Spanish vessel, a galleon, named the Santo Cristo, which had capsized off the coast, around the century 1600. The ship had been headed to Panama but never made it. It's cargo of horses was to go to the Viceroy of Peru and help in the gold mines. The horses, lost at sea, swam to the nearby island.

Once on the islands they became stunted under the harsh environment. To keep from starving they ate coarse saltmarsh cordgrass, American beachgrass, thorny greenbrier stems, bayberry twigs, seaweed and even poison ivy. When their fresh water sources froze during cold winters or dried up during the hot summers, they learned to survive on small amounts of seawater which, at times, gave them the appearance of being fat or bloated. Thus the horses bred down in size to the unique breed known today as the Chincoteague Pony.

Today there are two groups of these ponies descended down from only 17 original horses which survived the famous shipwreck. The two groups are “The Maryland Herd” and “The Virginia Herd”. The Maryland Herd consists of approximately 140 head and is overseen by the Maryland Park Service. The Virginia Herd consists of approximately 130 head and are overseen by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Both herds share the same island, which is Assateague Island, Virginia. The ponies graze in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island. There is a secure wire fence dividing the island and the herds. The Maryland Herd has shots to keep them from reproducing.

The famous annual “Pony Round-up” and “Pony Swim” is held each year during the month of July. This pony penning began in the year 1927 after the town burned down due to not having a Fire Dept. and the pony auction was instituted to help finance one. The auction helped to build a large fire house on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, and continues annually to provide money for the upkeep of the ponies.

On the pony penning day, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fireman herd the ponies off the Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island at slack tide, through the sea water channel to Virginia. (Slack tide is when the water is at its calmest and the tide is neither coming in nor out. This is the easiest time for the ponies to swim across the channel.) This happens on the last Wednesday of every July. Then the ponies are gathered for the auction which takes place the next day. Here the foals are auctioned off to the highest bidder. In 2001, the highest bid ever for a pony was $10,500. The foal was a black and white pinto filly.

People from all over the world come to the annual Pony Swim and it is a favorite event with local children. Chincoteague Island has the best seafood restaurants and hotels accommodating the heavy crowds looking at the ponies year round, and especially during the last Wednesday and Thursday of July when the famous pony auction takes place.

After the Chincoteague Pony foals are sold, the stallions and mares are taken back to Assateague Island, again swimming the channel at slack tide. About 3 to 4 stallion are returned with all the mares and sometimes the foals too young to leave their mothers are also returned to be sold later that Fall.

There are three bands running on the Wildlife Refuge on the island. A band is a herd of ponies with one stallion. All are mixed up at the pony penning and all are returned upon completion. The bands are formed once again when they get back to their home on Assateague Island.

The whole process of the Pony Round-Up or Pony Penning, auction and return swim takes three days.

The Disney movie, “MISTY” , a Twentieth Century Fox Production in 1951 , depicted the Pony Swim and auction and one young boy’s quest for ownership of a beloved Chincoteague pony. This movie was based on a series of children’s books about the Chincoteague Pony by Marguerite Henry. Her most famous book, Misty of Chincoteague, is a children’s classic and was first published in 1947. She subsequently wrote many more famous tales of horses including Stormy, Misty’s Foal, Sea Star, all Chincoteague ponies, which introduced many a young reader to the Chincoteague Pony. Medicine Hat, Black Gold, King of The Wind, Born to Trot and others, were Marguerite Henry's other famous books on horses.

Today the ponies living away from the islands are “easy keepers”. The Chincoteague Pony requires little food compared to an adult horse. They will do nicely in a weed patch, plus hay, a salt block, grain and fresh water. There is a saying “A Chincoteague Pony can get fat on a cement slab”.

There are approximately 1980 privately owned Chincoteague Ponies scattered over the Untied States and Canada.

In the mid 70's, Gale Park Frederick obtained three Chincoteague Ponies and in the 1980's set up a non-profit organization for the breed, as Section 501(c)(5) Agriculture and Education non-profit organization. It is called The National Chincoteague Pony Association and is the World's first Chincoteague Pony Registry. The purpose of the organization is to recognize this unique breed of pony and to improve and promote the breed across the United States and around the world.. The registration is called The National Chincoteague Pony Association and it is very first and the oldest Chincoteague Pony registry. The ponies are now recognized as a pure and rare breed. Gale Park Frederick is the only known breeder of the Chincoteague ponies. After purchasing her original three Chincoteague ponies, she transferred them to Washington State, and has been successfully breeding the ponies ever since. For over 32 years she has been breeding them and has a well established breeding farm for the Chincoteague ponies, keeping them a pure breed. A Selective Breeding of the Chincoteague Ponies have given the world back the conformation and size of the original shipwrecked horses in the 1600's. Now available up to 15 HH in size. Ranging from 13HH to 15HH on the Bellingham Farm. A herd size of 13 ponies insures 5 lucky people a new pony each year from her farm in Bellingham, Washington.

The NCPA's two websites, and, attract approximately 100,000 hits per month and 129 Countries are viewing the sites daily.

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