It’s pony penning week here at Chincoteague, which means a few important things for us here at the Field Station:
Above photographs by Jim Clark.
And once again, it’s time to reflect on our favorite island’s famous history. Where did the ponies come from? Why are the Pony Penning and the Pony Swim annual events? What does it have to do with the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company?
While ponies don’t normally qualify as marine animals, this week they’re going for a swim, so they can temporarily count enough to fall under our domain of study. They are however, a key attraction during our Coastal Mammals Summer Camp! Pony penning, or at least the version of it that we would recognize today with a carnival attached, started in 1925. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (whose website helped immensely in writing this blog post, along with Chincoteague’s website) was authorized in that year to hold a carnival during pony penning to raise money for better fire-fighting equipment. They eventually raised enough money to fund their own public pony herd, which is the one that grazes on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge now. Larger crowds accumulated each year to see the ponies swim between Assateague and Chincoteague Islands. The ponies end up at the "Pony Auction" where the Fire Company raises funds by auctioning off some of these famous ponies.
In 1947, the year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company started building its herd, Marguerite Henry published “Misty of Chincoteague,” a fictional story about the ponies of Chincoteague Island that made pony penning internationally famous. The book was turned into a movie and also spawned several sequels. The custom of pony penning actually dates back to the 1700’s, where the process was used as a way for farmers to claim their livestock, but started becoming an annual community celebration. It’s a well-known legend that the ponies first came to Chincoteague when a Spanish ship crashed on shore, however there are a list of theories that speculate otherwise.
Chincoteague’s Salt Water Cowboys will start herding the ponies a few days before the actual auctioning begins, so that they have time to transport them to the right spot and have them checked by veterinarians to make sure they’re healthy. The Pony Swim, attracting crowds from across the nation, will happen Wednesday morning before the ponies are then paraded to carnival grounds for the auction. The pony auction takes place on Thursday.
This event does two important things to help the island’s pony population. First, the proceeds from it provide veterinary care for the ponies throughout the year. And second, by auctioning off the ponies, the Fire Company is effectively able to control the pony population on the island. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge will allow only 150 ponies on the island. This number is considered to be the maximum sustainable population, since the Refuge is home to hundreds of other species of animals, and more ponies would upset the balance of the environment.
We love the Chincoteague Ponies, and we love that the pony auction benefits conservation biology!
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