Travel

If Wishes Were Ponies

by Kari Post | July 1, 2007

© Kari PostIt was January 2006 and I had a foolishly wonderful idea. Fortunately enough, I had an equally foolish and wonderful best friend who was just crazy enough to go along with it.

Ever since I first laid my hands on a mini series of books based loosely on Marguerite Henry’s 1947 classic Misty of Chincoteague, I had dreamt of going to Virginia – to this magical island that I couldn’t quite pronounce where wild ponies run free. I didn’t know many people who would find the endeavor appealing: roughly a day’s drive from northern New Jersey to Virginia to stand in the cold just to catch a glimpse of an undersized mustang, but I did know at least one person who might.

My friend, Nicole, is a fellow horse lover and liked the idea of a mini-road trip. She agreed to go, even given the catch – at that point I didn’t yet own a car, so we’d be using hers. So after a 5-hour road trip and eight hours of hiking on the first day, my childhood wish came true: I finally got to see a wild Chincoteague pony.

The Chincoteague Ponies actually live on Assateague Island, a barrier island that’s off of the coast of Maryland and Virginia. They are feral ponies descended from domestic stock, much like the wild mustangs of the American West. (The only species of truly wild horse remaining in the world today is the Przewalski wild horse of Mongolia.)

The exact origin of the Chincoteague ponies is uncertain, but the most widespread story is that they are descendants of horses that swam ashore after a Spanish galleon wrecked off of the coast of the island. In a similar legend, some believe that the ponies descend from horses owned by Spanish pirates. The U.S. Government takes a less romantic stand, claiming they are descendants of domestic horses put on the island during the 17th century by eastern shore farmers trying to avoid mainland taxes and fencing requirements.

Stallion at Chincoteague © Kari Post

There are actually two separate herds of wild ponies roaming Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia border. The northern herd is managed by the National Park Service and inhabits Assateague National Seashore in Maryland. The southern herd resides in Virginia within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. (Chincoteague is a small residential island that borders Assateague, but is not a part of Assateague Island itself. To get to the Virginia part of Assateague Island by car, you must pass through Chincoteague.)

Each year at the end of July, the Virginia herd is rounded up for the annual Pony Penning, Swim, and Auction. Volunteers from the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and other locals, affectionately called the Salt Water Cowboys, round up the ponies and swim them across the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague Islands (very young foals are boated or driven across) at low tide. The ponies are then herded along streets to the Firemen’s Carnival Grounds and placed into large pens and checked for disease, vaccinated, and branded. First foal to land ashore at Chincoteague is raffled off to the crowd and the remaining foals are put to auction, sold to the highest bidder. Unsold horses are driven back to Assateague Island and released into the wild again. The Wild Pony Round Up and Firemen’s Carnival provides revenue for the volunteer fire company and allows the firemen to regulate herd size, which by permit cannot exceed 150 animals if the ponies are to be allowed to graze and live at the wildlife refuge.

Because of their poor diet of available salt laden marsh grass, the island ponies tend to have bloated and round bellies. The nutrient-deficient diet has stunted the growth of these animals over the years, which is why the wild herd consists of small ponies instead of the larger horses from which they are believed to have descended. Chincoteague ponies average between 12 and 14 hands (48 to 56 inches tall at the shoulder) and come in all colors, but chestnut (reddish brown) and bay (brown with black points – legs, mane, tail, nose, and ear tips) with or without white is most common, although dun (tan or mousey gray with or without black points), gray (shades varying from white to dark gray), palomino (gold with a white mane and tail), and black (usually faded to dark brown by the sun) are not uncommon. In 1939, 20 BLM wild mustangs were bred into the herd in an attempt to minimize faults caused by inbreeding and to increase the overall size of the ponies to make them more desirable for auction. As a result, some Chincoteague ponies, especially those raised in captivity on more nutrient rich diets, can be closer to or surpass 14.2 hands tall (58 inches at the shoulder) as adults, nearing or exceeding the size of a full grown horse (defined as 14.2 hands).

Because most of the ponies that have been recaptured and raised as pets come from the Virginia herd owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and since the book Misty of Chincoteague made the ponies and the fireman’s carnival world famous, the ponies that reside on Assateague Island are collectively referred to as Chincoteague ponies. I often use the term Assateague Pony when referring to the Maryland ponies to distinguish between the northern and southern herds, but this is just a personal preference and “Chincoteague Pony” is the commonly accepted name for individuals from both herds.

Since seeing my first wild pony in January 2007, the ponies have become a sort of obsession for me. If wishes were ponies, I would own the herd. I have returned to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge twice since my first visit and visited Assateague National Seashore, the Maryland part of the island where the ponies roam, three times. While I have seen the ponies each time, getting a good photograph has been anything but easy. However, the more often a photographer visits any location, the more chances he or she will have to get good shots, and the last time I visited Chincoteague, in May 2007, I got my best photos of the ponies yet, including one of a young foal.

Foal © Kari Post

Eventually, I hope to see and photograph all of the wild horses that roam free in North America, including the wild mustangs of the West, banker ponies of North Carolina, and wild ponies of Nova Scotia. For me, the wild ponies of Assateague Island are just the first step to fulfilling this dream.

About the Author

Kari is a self-described adventurer, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, conservationist, and nature lover. She loves being outside in nature, exploring the world around her, and doing just about anything that keeps her on the move. Kari picked up photography as a young girl and developed a serious passion for the still picture in high school. In college, she combined her photography hobby and love of nature and began photographing wildlife and outdoor subjects, which now make up the bulk of her work. Kari views photography as a way to share the beauty she sees in the natural world with others. She hopes her images can be used help educate and inspire others to appreciate, preserve, and protect wild places and creatures, and aspires to one day work as a photojournalist for National Geographic documenting conservation issues. Visit Kari's website at: www.karipost.com and her blog at: www.karipost.com/blog.

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