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Chincoteague Ponies: A Brief History

It is impossible to uncover for sure the origins of the herd of Chincoteague ponies. However, one very popular belief is that they originated from a Spanish galleon shipwrecked close to the islands. This theory is so probable that a book was written about it by John Amrhein.

In his book, “The Hidden Galleon”, Mr. Amrhein presents his theory quite well. In 1750 a Spanish galleon by the name of the La Galga wrecked very close to the island of Assateague, where the herd of Chincoteague ponies can now be found. In that time period shipwrecks were common in that area as ships guided by nothing more than lighthouses could easily become grounded on sandbars and beaten apart by the wind and waves. His crowning fact is that the beach ponies appeared right around this time period.

These horses might also by descendants of horses that were brought to the islands by farmers from the mainland. There weren’t any fencing laws back then and livestock were allowed to roam and graze wherever they chose. It’s quite possible that this herd could have come from this livestock that strayed and was left behind.

However these horses got there, they made the islands their home. But the harsh environment took its toll on them. The lack of good quality food and uncontrolled inbreeding introduced many faults to the breed, resulting in a poor quality of pony. Many were stunted in growth.

To combat these effects of inbreeding, a combination of breeds were placed into the herd. The first probably the Welsh and Shetland ponies, then Pinto-colored horses too. This was an attempt to upgrade the breeding stock.

The Bureau of Land Management gave the herd twenty mustangs in 1939. These horses were allowed to join the herd and help dilute the poor stock. On two different occasions, Arabian blood was also introduced to the herd. The first attempt was to add a stallion to the herd, but he did not survive. The second, more successful attempt was to cull mares from the herd and breed them with an Arabian stud. The mares were then placed back into the herd. This Arabian addition was an effort to add height to the pony breed.

The story of these rugged ponies wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the tradition of pony penning. This tradition was already well established by the first written record of it in 1835. Today the practice is still going and has in fact become a very popular event that is held on the islands annually. It is also called the pony swim.

Before the annual pony swim, all of the herd is checked. Any horses that would not be able to make the crossing between the islands are taken from the herd. These include any mares close to birthing foals and the very youngest members of the herd. All of the other ponies are gathered and brought across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague Island. There they are checked by veterinarians and the older foals are auctioned. The rest of the herd is then returned to their island.

A visit to the annual Chincoteague ponies swim is a great vacation opportunity. One that is both fun and educational! Just be sure to reserve your spot early as the event is a very popular one.

You can visit the website for more helpful information about History Of The Chincoteague Ponies

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