Think About It: The ponies of Chincoteague Island

Don Meyer, Ph.D.
Don Meyer, Ph.D.

ByDon Meyer, Ph.D.

“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.”


The best way to go from here to there is rarely a straight line. And few adventures can be greater than an intentional detour. Today I want to share with you our “detour” to Chincoteague Island.

I first heard of this unusual place as a child. I vaguely remember my parents speaking of it. I even remember the story of the wild ponies and their annual swim and subsequent sale.

My memory was enhanced in recent years when VFCC professor Dr. Glenn McClure referenced Chincoteague Island as a vacation spot for him and his family. Each summer they spend time at their place on the island.


Two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. These small but sturdy, shaggy horses have adapted to their environment over the years by eating dune and marsh grasses and drinking fresh water from ponds.

While they appear tame, they are wild. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Island Fire Company and numbers 150 adult ponies on Assateague Island. Each year the fire company controls the herd size with a pony auction on the last Thursday in July. Tens of thousands of spectators come to watch the “Saltwater Cowboys” swim the pony herd from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.

Several opinions exist regarding the origin of the wild ponies. Some have suggested that the ponies trace their origin to horses released to forage on the island by early settlers. However, the evidence strongly suggests that they are the descendants of the survivors of a Spanish galleon which shipwrecked off the coast of Assateague. The shipwreck theory is most likely especially since such a wreck occurred in 1750 when the La Galga was destroyed in a huge storm in that area.

Pony “penning” began as a way for livestock owners to claim, brand, break and harness their loose herds. By the 1700’s it had become an annual event. The earliest known description of Pony Penning was published in 1835. The practice was then already an “ancient” custom.

Today the Saltwater Cowboys herd the ponies across the narrowest park of Assateague Island at low tide, after they have been examined by veterinarians. After a resting period, they are herded through town to a corral at the Carnival Grounds where they stay until the next day’s auction. The Pony Auction not only provides a source of revenue for the fire company, it also helps cull the herd so it does not exceed 150 ponies.

The website gives instructions for anyone who wants to buy a pony. The crowds are huge and you will want a space as close to the front as possible… You do not have to register for the auction. If you raise your hand during the auctioneer’s chant, you “ARE MAKING A BID.”

“In 2011 69 ponies sold for the average cost of $1,442.02; high bid $6,700; low bid $450; total sales, $99,500.00. Your transportation home for your new foal must be approved by the pony committee. (A horse trailer).”

As we drove through the old part of the downtown area we tried to imagine how transformed this small community would be later in the summer. We noticed the quaint shops, the long piers which extended out into the bay on the western side of the island. I stopped for gas and the man behind me was a member of the fire company. His colorful narrative made this quaint island a living, breathing place with special people and cherished traditions.

After about an hour on the island it was time to resume our trip home. But as we drove away, our hearts were full of memories of that fascinating place.

Sometimes detours can be the best part of the trip.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is the president ofValley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville.

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