What is a Chincoteague Pony?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Chincoteague Pony is a type of feral horse found on Assateague Island, an island off the coast of the American state of Virginia. The ponies have come to be associated with the neighboring island of Chincoteague as a result of an annual pony round-up and sale which has been held since the 1700s to manage the herd on Assateague Island. The Chincoteague Pony entered popular consciousness in the late 1940s by way of Misty of Chincoteague, a children's book written by Marguerite Henry.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Chincoteague Ponies are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “wild horses.” In fact, they are not wild at all, but merely feral, meaning that they are descended from a population of domestic horses. Popular legend states that the ponies are the descendants of Spanish horses who escaped from a sinking ship, but they actually have more mundane origins, being descended from horses released by settlers of the region. Feral horses on the island have been documented since the 1600s, along with feral sheep, dogs, and cats.

Assateague Island is actually divided in two by a fence, since it straddles the border between Maryland and Virginia. On the Maryland side, the horses are managed by the National Parks Service, while the horses on the Virginia side are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which leases their half of the island from the National Parks Service, with the agreement that the herd will be kept to around 150 individuals. The Fire Department also takes care of regular medical care for the ponies, including vaccinations for equine diseases and deworming.

In July every year, the ponies on the Virginia side of the island are swum to Chincoteague during a slack tide, and foals and yearlings are auctioned off to keep the size of the herd under control and to support the fire department. The annual Chincoteague Pony sale is a big event which attracts people from all over the world, and buyers are asked to prove that they have humane transportation and housing for the ponies they purchase.

There is no official breed standard for the Chincoteague Pony. Many of the ponies are pintos, but they come in every color, and some will grow to full horse size when offered a more nourishing diet than the one available on Assateague. The horses are famous for being very rugged, thanks to the harsh environment they call home, and they also tend to be extremely intelligent.

Several associations preserve the history and heritage of the Chincoteague Pony, and pony owners around the world can register their horses with these groups, should they so desire.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Nice article, but I'd like to offer a couple of corrections: the fire department leases grazing rights from the Fish and Wildlife Service (not the National Park Service), which manages the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the VA end of Assateague.

The fire department has made many introductions to their herd over the years of some other breeds of horses, which is more likely the reason for any foal reaching 14.2 when raised as a domestic. Good feed can't override genetics that much if both parents were in the 12-13 hand range.

- a Chincoteague pony fan


I loved that book when I was a little girl! I will always think fondly of Chincoteague ponies. I really wanted to see a herd of them. And see ponies swim!

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