The Wild Ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands

The ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands make their famous swim every July.

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Chincoteague Island Ponies
I invited several friends to join me on this adventure. We planned to spend one day in Chincoteague and take a boat tour to get better access to the ponies. We talked the boat captain of Salt Water Pony Tours into taking us out before sunrise, and I’m glad we did, as the sunrise that morning was nothing short of spectacular! Photo by Shelley Paulson
Chincoteague Island Ponies
A herd heads back to the dunes from the beach. The ponies often go to the beach midday to get a break from the flies. Photo by Shelley Paulson

In recent years, I have taken several trips to photograph wild horses. These trips have taken me west, where horses roam free and cowboys and cowgirls still ride the range. But last year, I wanted to do something different and head east to a place I’ve only visited in the pages of a favorite childhood book: Misty of Chincoteague. When most of us think of wild horses, we think of the American West, with its iconic herds of Mustangs. But wild horses and ponies can be found all across the U.S., including the coastlines of Virginia and Maryland on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands.

Chincoteague Island Ponies
After photographing the sunrise, we moved on and found an area where two herds were grazing close to each other. We got there just in time to see and photograph a stallion confrontation. The skirmish was fairly mild compared to the violence you see between Mustang stallions, but still exciting to watch and photograph. The tour guide told us that seeing this kind of interaction is rare, which made it even more special. Photo by Shelley Paulson

These wild horses are believed to have been on a galleon ship, bound for America from Spain. The ship wrecked in a storm, and the horses were able to swim to safety to the shores of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands, where they learned to survive on their own. A recent discovery of a shipwreck off of Assateague Island supports this theory.

While they are proportioned like horses, people most often refer to them as ponies due to their small stature, caused by a less-than-ideal diet of salt marsh plants and brush.

Chincoteague Island Ponies
These wild ponies are more accustomed to people, so they were easier to photograph than wild Mustangs, who often run when they see people. They are still cautious, and we were careful to keep a proper distance from them. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Seeing the ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague with my own eyes was a childhood dream come true. Getting to photograph them and come home with memories in the form of photographs was an unforgettable experience.

Chincoteague Island Ponies
These are colorful herds, with many pinto-colored like Misty and Stormy. Photo by Shelley Paulson
Assateague Island Ponies
During the tourist season, the ponies roam the campgrounds, rummaging for food. We visited after Labor Day, so while some ponies were still in the public areas, we also got a special Over Sand Vehicle (OSV) pass, which allowed us access to the full length of the beach to search for ponies. Photo by Shelley Paulson
Assateague Island Ponies
A foal nurses while his mother grazes in the swamp with an egret perching on her back. The egrets have a symbiotic relationship with the ponies, feasting on flies and ticks that are irritating them and that are also a potential health hazard. Photo by Shelley Paulson
Assateague Island Ponies
After our time in Chincoteague, we headed north to Assateague where more ponies roam a long stretch of the island. Photo by Shelley Paulson
Assateague Island Ponies
A pony stallion resting in the tall grasses of Assateague Island. Photo by Shelley Paulson
Assateague Island Ponies
Every morning, we would arrive at the park around sunrise and go straight to the first beach we could access to look for ponies. The last morning, this ritual bore fruit when we found a lone pair snoozing as the sun rose between the clouds. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Managing The Ponies on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands

There are actually two herds on Assateague Island, which are genetically identical. The major difference between the herds is in how they are managed. A fence on the Maryland/Virginia border keeps the herds separated.

The Virginia herd is managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, who organize a yearly pony penning event. Some of the ponies are rounded up, driven across the channel on to Chincoteague Island, and auctioned off to raise money for the continued care of the herd, whose numbers are kept at around 150.

The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. They use birth control to manage the herd size, which is kept at around 90.


This photo portfolio about the Chincoteague Ponies
appeared in the July 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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