Legend has it that a Spanish galleon went down near Assateague Island over three centuries ago, leaving its horses to swim to Virginia’s shore.
While maps of the mid-Atlantic coastline show a remarkable number of shipwrecks, there are no records to confirm this tale. Still, over 1.5 million people visit the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge each year to see the legendary ponies.
On the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department rounds the horses from the Virginia herd living on Assateague Island so that foals may be sold at the Pony Penning and Auction on Chincoteague Island. The penning began as a way for livestock owners to manage their herds. Since drinking, eating, and revelry accompanied the event, word spread quickly, solidifying it as a custom steeped in tradition. These days, the penning has evolved into a fundraiser, with proceeds benefitting the Chincoteague Fire Department.
My friend, Sara from Sandston, took her family to the pony penning a few years ago. “We had to get up really early in the morning to get a good spot, but it was worth it. Seeing the ponies swim ashore was incredible.” So whether you believe the folklore or the alternate version – that the horses were actually stashed on Assateague Island during the seventeenth century by early Colonial settlers who wanted to avoid paying taxes on their livestock – a trip to Virginia’s coast is sure to please family members of all ages.
I first traveled to Chincoteague Island as a child. My family rented a home on Virginia’s only resort island so we could enjoy the national seashore’s fishing, boating, and swimming; however, it was the wild ponies that captivated me. As a result, I couldn’t wait to take my daughters. For our road trip this May, we listened to Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, a Newbury Honor book from 1947. By the time we reached Chincoteague and finished listening to the story of a family trying to raise a wild foal, the entire family was eager to see not only this national wildlife treasure but also pose with the statue of Misty, proudly prancing on Main Street.
Assateague Island consists of three major public areas: Assateague Island National Seashore is managed by the National Park Service; the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and finally, Assateague State Park is managed by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. Each organization serves the habitat, animals, and people in different ways, ensuring that the seashore’s legacy is preserved for generations to come.
We started at Tom’s Cove Visitor’s Center on Assateague Island National Seashore. The building not only offers families beautiful views of the sprawling beaches, but also provides children the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the habitat by exploring touch tanks and interactive displays. It was here where my daughters began earning the Mini- and Junior Park Ranger badges, identifying points of interest in an activity booklet designed to introduce children to the park.
We spent the next two days at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on Assateague Island but named for the town where it gets its mail, which also has a visitor center. This facility is larger, housing numerous educational exhibits as well as a theater for films, like Back to the Wild: The Wild Horses of Assateague.
Whatever their origin, these extraordinary wild ponies thrive despite the summer heat, the winter storms, and the poor food quality. Although genetically considered horses, hundreds of years of grazing on nutrient-poor saltmarsh grass has resulted in a pony size. They also appear bloated, as their salty food supply means they’ll drink twice the amount of water than that of a domesticated horse. Should a visitor decide to purchase a horse during the penning, it will grow to full horse size given the appropriate conditions.
Beyond the dunes, we spotted ponies feasting in the bayside marshes, and while my daughters thought they were “cool,” I was the one shouting in excitement when I saw this rare breed. Luckily, the Refuge Wildlife Tour, which operates April through November, afforded us the opportunity to see the horses up close. These beautiful creatures were breathtaking in the lush landscape, only a few feet from us, so it didn’t take long for my five-year-old to ask if we could bring one home. “Look!” my eight-year-old exclaimed, “The mommy is nursing the baby.”
Our two-hour tour also enabled my daughters to earn an additional designation, the Junior Refuge Ranger badge, a program similar to that offered by the National Park System, as well as discover that the wild horse is only one of a myriad of species relying on this habitat. The piping plover, the Delmarva fox squirrel, and the American eagle are all back from the brink of extinction thanks to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
We chose to travel in the spring, as the off-season makes viewing animals easier. Between walking the Black Duck Trail and biking the Wildlife Loop, there’s plenty to do beyond the beach. We even climbed to the top of the Assateague lighthouse, built in 1859.
We opted to stay at the Refuge Inn, lodging within walking distance of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Suzanne of Richmond, another mom friend enamored of horses, had recommended it. “We loved it because of its close proximity to the island. Our girls loved it because of the ponies they could pet on the property.”
There are a lot of reasons to love Assateague Island – the surf, the sand, the seashore – but I’ll keep going back because of the horses, who, like my children, never fail to remind me of the joys of running wild.