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There is a race of hardy ponies that live on the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. The ponies are a race of small horses, compact and good nature. The legend is that these ponies swam ashore from a Spanish vessel, a galleon, named the Santo Cristo, which had capsized off the coast, around the century 1600. The ship had been headed to Panama but never made it. It's cargo of horses was to go to the Viceroy of Peru and help in the gold mines. The horses, lost at sea, swam to the nearby island.
Once on the islands they became stunted under the harsh environment. To keep from starving they ate coarse saltmarsh cordgrass, American beachgrass, thorny greenbrier stems, bayberry twigs, seaweed and even poison ivy. When their fresh water sources froze during cold winters or dried up during the hot summers, they learned to survive on small amounts of seawater which, at times, gave them the appearance of being fat or bloated. Thus the horses bred down in size to the unique breed known today as the Chincoteague Pony.
Today there are two groups of these ponies descended down from only 17 original horses which survived the famous shipwreck. The two groups are “The Maryland Herd” and “The Virginia Herd”. The Maryland Herd consists of approximately 140 head and is overseen by the Maryland Park Service. The Virginia Herd consists of approximately 130 head and are overseen by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Both herds share the same island, which is Assateague Island, Virginia. The ponies graze in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island. There is a secure wire fence dividing the island and the herds. The Maryland Herd has shots to keep them from reproducing.
The famous annual “Pony Round-up” and “Pony Swim” is held each year during the month of July. This pony penning began in the year 1927 after the town burned down due to not having a Fire Dept. and the pony auction was instituted to help finance one. The auction helped to build a large fire house on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, and continues annually to provide money for the upkeep of the ponies.
On the pony penning day, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fireman herd the ponies off the Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island at slack tide, through the sea water channel to Virginia. (Slack tide is when the water is at its calmest and the tide is neither coming in nor out. This is the easiest time for the ponies to swim across the channel.) This happens on the last Wednesday of every July. Then the ponies are gathered for the auction which takes place the next day. Here the foals are auctioned off to the highest bidder. In 2001, the highest bid ever for a pony was $10,500. The foal was a black and white pinto filly.
People from all over the world come to the annual Pony Swim and it is a favorite event with local children. Chincoteague Island has the best seafood restaurants and hotels accommodating the heavy crowds looking at the ponies year round, and especially during the last Wednesday and Thursday of July when the famous pony auction takes place.
After the Chincoteague Pony foals are sold, the stallions and mares are taken back to Assateague Island, again swimming the channel at slack tide. About 3 to 4 stallion are returned with all the mares and sometimes the foals too young to leave their mothers are also returned to be sold later that Fall.
There are three bands running on the Wildlife Refuge on the island. A band is a herd of ponies with one stallion. All are mixed up at the pony penning and all are returned upon completion. The bands are formed once again when they get back to their home on Assateague Island.
The whole process of the Pony Round-Up or Pony Penning, auction and return swim takes three days.
The Disney movie, “MISTY” , a Twentieth Century Fox Production in 1951 , depicted the Pony Swim and auction and one young boy’s quest for ownership of a beloved Chincoteague pony. This movie was based on a series of children’s books about the Chincoteague Pony by Marguerite Henry. Her most famous book, Misty of Chincoteague, is a children’s classic and was first published in 1947. She subsequently wrote many more famous tales of horses including Stormy, Misty’s Foal, Sea Star, all Chincoteague ponies, which introduced many a young reader to the Chincoteague Pony. Medicine Hat, Black Gold, King of The Wind, Born to Trot and others, were Marguerite Henry's other famous books on horses.
Today the ponies living
away from the islands are “easy keepers”. The Chincoteague Pony requires little
food compared to an adult horse. They will do nicely in a weed patch, plus hay,
a salt block, grain and fresh water. There is a saying “A Chincoteague Pony can
get fat on a cement slab”.
There are approximately 1980 privately owned Chincoteague Ponies scattered over the Untied States and Canada.
In the mid 70's, Gale Park Frederick obtained three Chincoteague Ponies and in the 1980's set up a non-profit organization for the breed, as Section 501(c)(5) Agriculture and Education non-profit organization. It is called The National Chincoteague Pony Association and is the World's first Chincoteague Pony Registry. The purpose of the organization is to recognize this unique breed of pony and to improve and promote the breed across the United States and around the world.. The registration is called The National Chincoteague Pony Association and it is very first and the oldest Chincoteague Pony registry. The ponies are now recognized as a pure and rare breed. Gale Park Frederick is the only known breeder of the Chincoteague ponies. After purchasing her original three Chincoteague ponies, she transferred them to Washington State, and has been successfully breeding the ponies ever since. For over 32 years she has been breeding them and has a well established breeding farm for the Chincoteague ponies, keeping them a pure breed. A Selective Breeding of the Chincoteague Ponies have given the world back the conformation and size of the original shipwrecked horses in the 1600's. Now available up to 15 HH in size. Ranging from 13HH to 15HH on the Bellingham Farm. A herd size of 13 ponies insures 5 lucky people a new pony each year from her farm in Bellingham, Washington.
The NCPA's two websites, www.pony-chincoteague.com and www.pony-chincoteague.org, attract approximately 100,000 hits per month and 129 Countries are viewing the sites daily.
COLOR: Most Chincoteague ponies have pinto/paint spotting:
Overo – solid color with white splashes.
Tobiano – white base with colored irregular patches of solid or roan color.
Spotting colors include skewbald and piebald (black and white only), palomino to dark bay on white, dark red on white (tobiano) with black points, and strawberry roan on white (tobiano). Other color variations include solid black, solid sorrel with flaxen mane and tail, and solid chestnut with flaxen mane and tail. Now on the Assateague Island, the ponies come in all colors.
The Chincoteague Pony is a well-proportioned horse with a strong and muscular compact body. They typically stand fourteen hands or less and weight between 800 and 900 pounds. The body tends to have a unique style and balanced conformation that includes a well-rounded rump. The hair of a Chincoteague Pony is strong and thick. An extra thick mane and tail can grow to great lengths, if allowed, and may grow long on the forehead. The forehead has one or two cow-licks. Fetlocks have light feathering, adding to the unique appearance of this pony. During the winter months the ponies grow a heavy coat of hair, causing them to become shaggy in appearance. This helps them to stay warm on the island and makes the Chincoteague Pony a good horse for those who live in cold climate areas. A Chincoteague Pony’s tail sits low on the rump and can be so long as to touch the ground. The tail may flag when the pony runs. With strong hooves these ponies make for excellent long distance runners. They can gallop very fast for their size.
The disposition of a Chincoteague Pony is well-known to be good-natured, kind, sweet, and gentle. With a love of people, they are highly intelligent, versatile, and well-suited for children. The personality of a Chincoteague Pony has been described as that of a “puppy dog” to it’s owner. The pony is brave, loves to play and learn new things.
Only one corner of the pony’s stall, paddock or pasture will be used by the pony for fecal matter, making for easy clean-up. A trait learned on the Island living to protect their grazing land.
The Chincoteague Pony performs well in hunt seat, jumping, driving, and trail riding. English or western saddle may be used. They respond well to gentle training techniques because of their easy attachments to their owners as well as other horses. The ponies colorfully marked coats are a particular favorite in pony halter classes.
In recent years the volunteer fire department introduced a few Mustang horses and purebred Arabians into the Assateague herd to strengthen the blood-line and diversify it. Because of this, pure bred Chincoteague Ponies are even harder to find and more valuable. Gale Park Frederick’s Bellingham Washington Chincoteague Pony Farm has kept the Chincoteague Ponies Blood lines pure for over 32 years of breeding. Every 12th foal born is A “Misty-look-a-like” or a “Stormy-look-a-like”.
In Gale's many years of raising Chincoteague ponies, she has gathered many delightful observations about this breed. They include a mare named "Betz", who liked to have help in birthing her foal while she was lying down eating grass, and "Towie Tug Button "who stood up to a large stallion to protect another pony in the field from being run ragged. "The stallion, "Crackerjack", protected me one afternoon when the herd of 6 ponies came running up from behind," says Gale. "He stood behind me to protect me from the rest of the running ponies. He was in front of the herd running and came to a dead halt and stood at my back until the other ponies veered to the sides of us. "One time when one of the mares, "Miss Arrow Head Nine", ran out of patience with her foal for the umpteenth time, the foal was placed in another band. A young mare. "Black Diamond" took over raising the little foal, "Ice Cream Sundae". Black Diamond made sure the foal received her fair share of the hay and grain. The foal grew up to be one of the prettiest mares on the farm. She is now ranked second to the lead horse in the herd.
The Chincoteague ponies
love attention and the love that people give them. When cars drive up the
farm's long driveway the ponies come running in from the pasture and stand by
the white board fence, waiting for that smile, that touch and those kind words
that visitors are so generous in giving them. "If we stand and clap and laugh,
the Chincoteague ponies run, jump, gallop and frolic in the green pastures,"
says Gale. "They love the attention and provide hours of amusement. Each
pony has its own personality and likes."
Text courtesy of: Gale Park Frederick, The National Chincoteague Pony Association
2595 Jensen Road
Bellingham, WA 98226
Photo courtesy of: Gale Park Frederick, The National Chincoteague Pony Association.
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