Wild Horses of the Eastern Shore

chincoteague assateague horses

by Gemma Asher

The ship, a 56-gun Spanish warship, was the La Galga, and was driven ashore in shallow water at Assateague on the 5th of September, 1750, by a hurricane which rerouted her prearranged voyage from Havana, Cuba back to Spain and brought her to rest on the eastern shore of the United States. The ship did not entirely sink and all those aboard made away, trying to reach land. It’s said that Native Americans came to the rescue, sending out canoes to save who and what they could. It took three days for most to make the shore, and some did drown in the surf, weighted down by supplies or money bags tied to their belts.

Most of the freight — the horses — survived. And their descendants live today. The wild horses of the Eastern shores of Virginia and Maryland are well-known. These horses are actually feral animals, meaning they — their ancestors — may have at one time been domestic animals (likely in Cuba or Spain) but had at some point reverted to wild. These particular wild horses are referred to as "ponies," for though they resemble greatly domestic horses, they are shaggier and compact, with a smaller stature, due in part to the poor habitats on Assateague Island. Other variations in appearance have to do with the blood of different breeds being introduced over the centuries. For those hundreds of years, these ponies have proved hardy enough to withstand the sweltering heat, plentiful mosquitos, coastal storms and poor quality of food on the remote and windswept barrier island. They manage on a diet of salt marsh cordgrass, dune grasses, bayberry twigs, rose hips, and persimmons.

wild horses jason donnelly

The island of Assateague is owned entirely by the US government and is cut in half by the line that separates Maryland from Virginia. The wild ponies, thus, are split in to two main herds divided by a fence at that state line, with about 150 ponies living on each side. On the Maryland side, the National Park Service manages the wild ponies, and their policy is to let the ponies be wild — they offer no assistance, no food, and no management, other than to treat the pony populace with contraceptives to prevent overpopulation. On the Virginia side of the fence, the ponies are managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and live within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, through a special permit granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Virginia ponies are commonly referred to as the ‘Chincoteague Ponies’ and are treated to yearly veterinary visits, as some of these are sold to private breeders.

chincoteague assateague map

Every year since 1925, during the last week in July, the Chincoteague Ponies travel from Assateague to Chincoteague as part of the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim and Festival — the major source of operating funds for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The ponies are rounded up prior to the festival by the “Saltwater Cowboys” and penned up on Assateague. On the Wednesday of that week, the horses swim across the Assateague Channel and come ashore on the east side of Chincoteague Island. Tens of thousands of people will gather to watch the horses swim and then parade through the town to the festival grounds. This is followed by a pony auction later in the week before the horses are directed to swim back to Assateague.

wild horse of virginia and maryland

The wild ponies of the Eastern shore are beautiful, mysterious, and wild — as famously depicted in Marguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, later adapted to film as Misty in 1971 — and have learned to survive in a harsh environment. It is advised that they be given a wide perimeter, as abundant human contact would be detrimental to their wild state.

author marguerite henryMarguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, was not merely imagined fiction. Henry purchased the real-life Misty in 1946 as a weanling from a local family, the Beebes, who bred the wild ponies. Misty lived with Henry in Illinois until she was returned to the Beebe ranch in 1957. Misty rode out the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 inside the family home, and when she died, Misty was preserved through taxidermy and can today be seen at the Beebe Rance, which is both horse ranch and museum  located in Chincoteague, Virginia.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine March/April 2018 issue.

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