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Wild Horses and Saltwater Cowboys

A festive celebration of equine history and community in a small coastal town

Open range mustangs and cowboys invoke a vision of sweeping western vistas, sage brush terrain, gnarled pine, and rattlesnakes all under the endless sea of a crimson-blond sunset. Burly cowboys rope and rodeo and drive livestock across formidable landscapes to scratch out a living. Here on the easternmost shores of Virginia resides a different type of cowboy – no less burly though. The cowboy of Chincoteague trades in dusty chaps for wranglers soaked by the brackish waters of the Assateague Channel. Herding livestock across open water is a challenge not found in overland drives of the central plains. On the small Chincoteague and Assateague Islands the Saltwater Cowboys wrangle a herd of wild horses, popularly known as the Chincoteague Pony.  

Legend tells of a Spanish galleon that shipwrecked nearly 400 years ago off the eastern shore, a point on Assateague Island, from which the herd of horses swam to Assateague. Hence the lesser used but accurate name, Assateague horse. At that time, the body of water between Assateague and Chincoteague Islands was said to be small and shallow enough that the horses could traverse and find shelter within the larger vegetation and trees on Chincoteague. As the herd grew over the generations, ranchers domesticated several horses, mainlanders took others, and some horses remained wild. Another historical version described when colonial legislatures required livestock fencing and levied taxes on livestock, so the Eastern Shore landowners brought their horses to the islands to avoid such regulations. Regardless of which legendary narrative you ascribe, by the 1900s the horse herd was in poor health due to inbreeding and marshland diets. Outside blood from Welsh and Shetland ponies, mustangs, and Arabian stallions were introduced to increase the hardiness of the now known Chincoteague Pony.

The herd of wild ponies are a bit of a misnomer because they are routinely cared after. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and maintains the herd, kept on Assateague Island. In the early 1900s, Chincoteague residents were isolated with little to no support in the event of a fire. The mostly wooden structures of the town were built in close proximity. The danger of fire ravaging the town was ever present on the town folk. Modest funds were raised to purchase firefighting equipment, but neglect and insufficiency of the equipment left the town devastated after a large fire in 1920. Chincoteague residents banded together and founded the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company in 1924. To raise money for equipment the fire company bought a herd of ponies to breed, raise, and sell. Since 1924, the fire company “rounds-up” the ponies from Assateague to Chincoteague several times a year; July being the most popular “Pony Penning Day” and horse swim. Roundups are a centuries old tradition where early settlers and mainlanders would gather to claim, brand, and break new ponies. During the modern-day roundups, the fire company treats the ponies to twice yearly veterinarian inspections and routinely sells foals to raise funds for the all-volunteer fire company. The roundup also helps keep the atoll restricted herd from over populating. 

The Chincoteague Pony garnered national fame during these early days under the care of the fire company. In 1947, Marguerite Henry wrote her famous children’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague. The main “characters” – Chincoteague Ponies – were inspired by domesticated ponies, whose literary namesakes, Misty, Stormy, and Phantom were actual ponies, that lived at Beebe Ranch on Chincoteague Island. 

The festivities around the penning, which were documented as early as 1835, are held with great jubilee. The night prior to the Fourth of July commences the Chincoteague Fireman’s Carnival and Pony Penning. The horse swimming takes place throughout the last week of July. Apart from the mid-summer celebrations, guests can enjoy a refreshing respite from the summer heat when visiting the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. While visiting be sure to keep an eye out for wild Chincoteague Ponies. Available activities on the refuge are crabbing, fishing, and clamming. Guests can hike or bike on nearly 15 miles of trails throughout the refuge.  Birdwatching is a popular activity along the trails as well. Observers can find various songbirds, herons, and egrets as well as other wildlife. Visitors who want to a refreshing escape can swim at the several beaches, surf, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or enjoy a lazy day of boating around the island. History buffs can tour the Assateague Lighthouse, built in 1867 and still in use today.

Dining options are aplenty. Try Bill’s Seafood Restaurant, Don’s Seafood Restaurant, or The Village to feed any seafood appetites. If American fare is what you are craving, head over to Better or Backyard Firepit. Finally, to indulge your sweet tooth, grab a treat to beat the heat from the Island Creamery or Mister Whippy.

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