Life on the barrier islands off the coast of Virginia is not for the faint of heart. Marshes, mosquitos, harsh ocean winds, and destructive storms marching up the coast have challenged ponies and people for centuries. Today, a beloved tradition commemorates the true grit of both. It’s July, time for Pony Penning on Chincoteague Island, setting for “Seeds of Evidence.”
By the late 1600s, English colonists had established farms and villages on what we now call the Delmarva Peninsula. The islands offshore were handy for grazing livestock–the waters provided natural fencing. While legend has it that today’s Chincoteague ponies are the descendants of survivors of the wreck of a Spanish galleon, their origins may be a bit more mundane. Kirk Mariner, in his book, “Once Upon an Island,” a history of Chincoteague, suggests they descend from stock left to graze by early settlers.
Regardless, wild ponies have been on Chincoteague and Assateague islands for a long, long time. While no one knows exactly when “pony penning” began, an 1835 newspaper article describes it as an “ancient tradition.” The practical need to gather the herd to geld some males and brand the colts had become an annual celebration even then. It was further immortalized by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 book, “Misty of Chincoteague” followed by the movie of the same name.
These days, the beloved Chincoteague ponies are well cared-for, receiving veterinary treatment and extra food as needed. Still, they survive on the salt marshes of Assateague mostly on their own.
Soon, the “saltwater cowboys” of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department will begin rounding them up. On Monday before the Wednesday pony swim (July 30 this year) they’ll herd them down Assateague’s Atlantic Ocean beach to holding pens. Trust me: Seeing 160 wild ponies come trotting out of the ocean mist at dawn, straight down the beach, is unforgettable.
Then on Wednesday, at slack tide, the ponies will make the short swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague, to the delight of thousands of onlookers. They’ll parade through the streets of town to the carnival grounds. On Thursday, some colts will be auctioned off (the firemen are allowed to keep only about 160 adults on Assateague) sending some happy horse lovers home with a treasure, an iconic Chincoteague pony. Then on Friday, the ponies will swim back to Assateague, to graze in peace for another year.
We’ll be in Chincoteague for Pony Penning week this July, along with our grown children and 2.5 grandchildren, filling our lungs with salt air and populating our dreams with ponies. Somehow, it never gets old.