The wild ponies in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge have been made famous by Marguerite Henry’s book, Misty of Chincoteague. They are actually small, sturdy horses that have adapted to the harsh environment of the tidal marshlands.
The National Park Service position on the origin of the ponies is that though they are now wild, they are descendants of domestic horses owned by seventeenth and eighteenth century Eastern Shore planters, who brought them to the island to graze to avoid building fences and paying mainland taxes. Various legends about their past, however, also include a story about a Spanish galleon that wrecked off the coast, releasing its cargo of mustangs, some of which made it to shore.
The ponies on the Virginia end of Assateague Island are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which protects the homes on Chincoteague Island across Assateague Channel from the refuge. A popular pony swim and summer carnival draws huge crowds to the island annually. On the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, volunteer firemen on horseback come to the refuge and herd the ponies into the water for a swim across Assateague Channel. On Chincoteague Island, the ponies are corralled for Pony Penning Day and many of the foals are sold to the highest bidder.
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