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Chincoteague Ponies in the Fall

A Chincoteague pony drinking from a pond
A chance encounter with the wild ponies at a freshwater pond. Photo by Kellie Kvern

Misty of Chincoteague, the famous story by Marguerite Henry, was published all the way back in 1947, and it remains THE must-read novel for every horse-loving kid. Misty made the island of Chincoteague, its wild ponies, and Pony Penning Day world famous.

Where is Chincoteague?

The island of Chincoteague is only 7 miles long and 3 miles wide. It’s protected from the rough Atlantic Ocean by the barrier island of Assateague. Assateague is a national park that runs 37 miles along the coastline of both Virginia and Maryland. The ponies are named after Chincoteague, but they actually live wild on Assateague.

A little girl pets horses on a trailer
The ponies are divided into northern and southern herds. Separating them prevents bloodlines from becoming too close and makes it easier to keep track of them. The health checks for each herd take place on two consecutive days—usually a Friday and Saturday. On Friday afternoon, the cowboys meet at the iconic lighthouse (above) on the southern end of the island. Photo by Kellie Kvern

There is a fence that separates Assateague island at the border of the two states. The Maryland ponies are managed by the National Park Service. The ponies on the Virginia side belong to and are cared for by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.

Chincoteague ponies
The fire department keeps the herd total to about 150 ponies. The foal auction helps maintain these numbers, and while most foals auctioned leave the island for new homes, some are designated as “buy backs.” These foals are auctioned as donations back to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and will return to Assateague, where they become part of the wild herd. Some of the buy-back ponies have captured the highest auction prices. Photo by Kellie Kvern

Summer Pony Penning in Chincoteague

The famed Salt Water Cowboys of Chincoteague are all volunteer firefighters. The fire department cares for their ponies year-round and they run the Pony Penning swim, parade, carnival, and foal auction.

Riders preparing for a roundup
The southern roundup starts Friday afternoon and only takes about two hours. The northern herd is larger and spread out across more remote and rugged terrain. Their roundup starts Saturday morning and can take more than five hours! Photo by Kellie Kvern
Chincoteague ponies
The smaller southern herd is brought into a large holding pen in front of a trail parking lot on the beach road. There’s plenty of space to park and find a great spot to watch. Photo by Kellie Kvern

The last Wednesday of July, the Salt Water Cowboys head to Assateague and round up every pony. They wait for “slack tide” (a period when the water is very still just before the tide changes), then herd the ponies into the water for the channel crossing.

The swim is done at the narrowest point of the channel and takes just a few minutes. Once they’re safely on solid Chincoteague ground, they parade down Main Street to the carnival grounds. On Thursday, the foal auction is held, and the proceeds from these sales pay for the herd’s veterinary care and help fund the volunteer fire department.

Horses in chutes to be examined by veterinarians
Once they’re all in the pen, the cowboys and other volunteers will funnel the ponies through a series of narrower chutes that lead to a stall where the veterinarians are working. The ponies are familiar with this process. Once they’re in the veterinary stall, ponies receive a health exam, including of their teeth and hooves. They’re dewormed and get seasonal vaccines. All the ponies are known and microchipped, so veterinarians can be sure they see every pony and ensure the herds are thriving. Photo by Kellie Kvern

Attending the Pony Penning can be a horse lover’s trip of a lifetime. You get to be a part of all the excitement, the carnival, the swim, the auction, and the history. However, you also get to be part of a crowd that can number between 30,000 and 40,000 people—all together on a tiny island!

A Chincoteague pony foal
In 2015, an online group formed called the Chincoteague Legacy Group (CLG). Their goal was to purchase a buy-back foal during Pony Penning. With over 400 people contributing from all over the world, they set a record bid of $25,000! The filly was named CLG Blue Moon and is grown now with her own foals. Shown: CLG Blue Moon with her 2020 foal, who inherited her stunning blue eyes. Photo by Kellie Kvern
Chincoteague ponies with a foal
Around 70 foals are born per season, and the spring roundup allows veterinarians to see the earliest-born foals. The spring roundup is also when the buy-back foals from the previous year are released out with the rest of the herd after spending the winter at the carnival grounds. The fall roundup will check on foals born after the summer Pony Penning. Photo by Kellie Kvern

Visiting in Spring or Fall

If you’d like to be a part of the fun but maybe not the crowds, the fire department has two other annual roundups in April and October. These are health checks where ponies are rounded up but do not swim to Chincoteague; they stay on the bigger island and the veterinarians get a chance to see them.

A dark chestnut stallion with an impressive flaxen forelock
A fan-favorite pony is the 2009 stallion Riptide. His sire was one of the most famous ponies since Misty. The late stallion was named Surfer Dude, but he was known as the “King of Assateague.” Surfer Dude was 23 years old when he died in 2015, and he passed on his movie-star good looks to his son. Riptide now has his own band of mares and has become king of the southern herd. Photo by Kellie Kvern
Chincoteague ponies, including Riptide
When all the ponies have been accounted for and the health checks are finished, they are let out of the corral and make their way back out into the wild (including Riptide, left). Photo by Kellie Kvern

The spring and fall roundups are open to the public in designated areas. With much smaller crowds, they’re a great chance to see the ponies up close and experience a special part of the unique pony culture.

This article about the ponies of Chincoteague appeared in the November 2021 Mini Digital issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Kellie Kvern


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