The Chincoteague pony is an American breed from Assateague Island. Two feral populations still inhabit the island today, separated by a fence marking the state line between Virginia and Maryland.

National and local authorities use different methods to manage the feral population on the island, including an annual pony swim and auction on Chincoteague Island. Foals sold in the auction go to private homes to lead domesticated lives as beloved pleasure and show ponies.

The breed was made famous thanks to Marguerite Henry’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague, and their enigmatic origin story continues to attract interest to these ponies. The ponies of Assateague Island now play a central role in the economy and ecology of their native land.

This breed profile will discuss the history, conformation, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Chincoteague pony breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Chincoteague ponies.

Chincoteague Pony History

Ponies have inhabited Assateague Island since the late 1600s, but the origins of the Chincoteague pony herds on the island are still subject to debate.

The breed’s isolation from humans and other horses allowed these animals to naturally develop without selective breeding as a landrace. This is a term used to describe a locally adapted and genetically diverse population of plants or animals.

Origin

The Chincoteague pony, also known as the Assateague horse, is believed to have descended from the survivors of shipwrecked Spanish Galleons. The Spanish warship La Galga sank near Assateague in 1750, sparking the legend that the breed’s ancestors swam ashore from the wreck.

One study found strong genetic links between Chincoteague ponies and 16th-century horse remains from former Spanish Colonies in the Caribbean. This suggests the breed shares ancestry with Iberian horses brought to the Western Hemisphere from Spain. [1]

Colonial settlers pastured livestock on Assateague in the late 1600s to avoid taxes and fencing laws. This practice was common on Atlantic barrier islands along the entire coast of Colonial America. [2]

Abandoned horses established semi-feral herds that still roam many of those islands today. While the development of beach towns led to declines in some horse populations, Assateague Island remained preserved as a protected National Seashore.

Historic Use

Historical records from the 1700s and 1800s described stout, hardy, and solid-coloured horses that roamed Assateague Island’s beaches and marsh. Some herds had private owners. Residents captured and domesticated others as riding mounts.

By 1874, approximately 500 horses lived on Assateague. Shetland Ponies introduced to the island in the 1920s added Pinto colouring to the gene pool. Other breeds released on the island include Arabians and Mustangs. [2]

Ponies were brought to Assateague by boat for pony penning festivals. The town of Chincoteague authorized the Volunteer Fire Company to organize a carnival alongside the pony penning to raise funds after a string of disastrous fires.

The tradition of swimming the ponies to Chincoteague came later. Eventually, the annual pony swim, auction, and carnival became a huge success and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC) took full ownership of the Virginia herd.

Today, the CVFC has a special use permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to graze ponies on Assateague Island. Although they introduced Mustangs to increase the herd’s genetic diversity in the 20th century, modern management efforts now focus on population control.

The yearly pony auction helps maintain a stable population in the Virginia herd. The National Park Service also uses contraception to reduce the number of foals born in the Maryland herd. [3]

Breed Registry

The International Chincoteague Pony Association & Registry (ICPAR) is the official breed registry affiliated with the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. The ICPAR launched in 2021 and partners with the Chincoteague Pony Pedigree Database.

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Breed Characteristics

Chincoteague Ponies initially developed as a feral landrace. Their geographic isolation and coastal habitat led to adaptations that initiated the breed standard. However, outside breeds introduced to the island in the 20th century also contributed to their characteristics.

Conformation

Chincoteague ponies have an average height of 12 to 13 hands. But some of these ponies can grow to reach horse height.

These hardy equines adapted to survive on the marsh grasses of their island habitat, and needed resilience to endure harsh weather conditions. They have stocky builds with strong legs and hooves. These