Assateague Wild Ponies

A sturdy wire fence separates the Virginia and Maryland sides of Assateague Island and the two herds of wild ponies living on this island. The confines of the island serve as a natural pen, or barrier, to the ponies.

The Maryland herd numbers about 140 and the National Park Service maintains this herd. The Virginia herd, which numbers about 130 ponies, is slightly smaller and belongs to the Volunteer Fire Company of Chincoteague. The Chincoteague ponies, as the Virginia herd is commonly called, are the group of ponies rounded up for the annual pony swim and auction.

2007 Pony Swim Across Assateague Channel

The 82nd Annual Chincoteague Pony Swim
Credit: Chincoteague Pony Swim by US Coast Guard, PA2 Christopher Evanston under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Pony Swim Then and Now

The annual Chincoteague Pony Swim and Pony Penning traces its roots to the 1700s. It was a way for the islanders of Assateague to round up, pen and claim their loose herds and was a festive event celebrated with lots of food, drink, and fun. Today, the Pony Swim and Penning is a annual gala, which is attended by over 40,000 visitors to a tiny island in Virginia.

About the Pony Swim and Penning

Each year, on the last Wednesday of July, the ponies are rounded up and swim across the Assateague Channel at low tide. Their destination is Chincoteague Island and the annual Chincoteague Firemen’s Carnival, which is held on Thursday. They are penned and examined by veterinarians and allowed to rest until the next day's auction.

A selected number of ponies are auctioned at the carnival. On Friday, the remaining ponies swim back across the channel and return to their pasture. Traditionally, the first foal that reaches the shore, be it filly or colt, is named as King or Queen Neptune and is given away by a raffle.

2011 Chincoteague Pony Swim

History of the Chincoteague Pony Swim and Auction

The first recorded pony penning took place in 1835 and was held on both islands. In 1885, the pony penning was held on Assateague Island one day, and Chincoteague Island the next, with the ponies transported between the islands by boat.

By 1925, the pony penning had been consolidated to a single day. The ponies swam the channel for the first time and were then auctioned at a carnival. The Chincoteague Firemen’s Carnival was established to raise much-needed funds to upgrade the department’s equipment.

From these humble beginnings, the carnival has grown to a gala event attended by over 40,000 visitors, an undetermined number of locals, and capable of generating sizable revenue for the fire company – a reported $166,725 in 2001.

Fifteen ponies were sold at the first auction, while 85 ponies were sold in 2001. The highest auction price for one of these rare ponies - $10,305 - was paid at the 2001 carnival.

In addition to providing a continuous source of revenue for the Fire Company and island businesses, the pony penning thins the herd and prevents potential ecological damage. Today, the volunteer fire company maintains its own herd and has obtained a permit for them to graze in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. However, the permit limits the herd size to 150, thus prompting the need for an annual reduction of size.

Chincoteague ponies are considered a rare pony breed with between 980 to 2980 ponies identified in the United States. They are hardy ponies, who survived harsh conditions on an unfriendly island but developed adaptations to survive such as like learning to drink salt water.

Good tempered and gentle animals, they are perfect for families and make a good first pony for children. Now that you know about the Chincoteague Pony Swim and the Chincoteague Firemen’s Carnival, why not plan to attend next year?