Ever since I read Misty of Chincoteague when I was a kid, I’ve wanted to attend Pony Penning Day and bring home a Misty all of my own. Of course, that wish was always a far-fetched one, since I grew up on the West Coast, thousands of miles away from the two islands and adventures that Marguerite Henry described in her book. It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up the novel, but I still remember being swept away by the story of Misty.
The ponies that live on Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia have many different legends surrounding them, but there are two main theories of how they came to live there. The most popular, which was immortalized in Henry’s book, was that a Spanish galleon wrecked off the coast, and the ponies swam to the island. However, there’s little evidence to support the idea, and the more logical origin is that colonists from the early 17th century let the ponies loose on the island to avoid taxes. No matter which theory is true, the ponies have been living on the island for hundreds of years.
Over time, the ponies adapted to the climate and conditions of the 37-mile barrier island. They eat marsh and sand dune grasses, rosehips, bayberry twigs and persimmons, as well as the salt marsh cord grasses along the shoreline. Because they graze on the salty grasses, they drink much more fresh water than other horses, which contributes to their roly-poly appearance.
Both the Maryland and Virginia sides of Assateague Island host wild pony herds, and a fence at the state line separates the two herds to prevent overgrazing. The ponies are descended from the same stock, but the Maryland ponies are called “Assateague Horses” and are looked over by the National Park Service. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia ponies, which are allowed to graze on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge through a special permit. This permit keeps the herd restricted to 150 adult ponies. The Virginia ponies are often referred to as the “Chincoteague Ponies.”
In order to keep both herds and their habitats healthy, several management techniques have been incorporated by the NPS. In Maryland, some mares are given a contraceptive vaccine, which has proven to reduce the amount of pregnancies without harmful side effects. Of course, in Virginia, the Annual Pony Swim keeps the population at a manageable level.
The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company came to be in May of 1924 after several fires destroyed many buildings in the remote town. Twenty-five men came together and passed a hat around, gathering $4.16 to start the company. In order to pay for the fire truck they needed to protect their town, the company organized their first carnival and Pony Penning Day. The celebration has taken place every year since 1924 (except for during World War II, 1943-1945), and has served as a fundraiser for the Company since its inception.
Foals are auctioned off each year, and all the foals that are purchased are eligible to be registered in the Chincoteague Pony Association.
In 1945, after winning a Newberry Honor for her book, Justin Morgan Had A Horse, Henry received a letter about the Assateague ponies. She decided to visit during Pony Penning Day and discovered the story of Misty with Wesley Dennis, who illustrated many of Henry’s books. Together, they created Misty of Chincoteague, which was published in 1947. The book also won a Newberry Honor, and went on to inspire the movie Misty (1961) and several book sequels.
Misty lived with Henry for much of her life, but she returned to Chincoteague in her later years, where she died in 1972. She was preserved, along with her foal Stormy, and the pair can still be seen at the Beebe Ranch on Chincoteague. Currently, the Misty of Chincoteague Foundation is working to preserve the Beebe Ranch. Misty’s descendants still roam the islands, as well. Henry went on to publish 58 books, including Newberry Medal Winner King Of The Wind, before she passed away in 1997 at the age of 95.
Pony Penning Day is fast approaching this year (July 28) and 50,000 visitors (hotel rooms are often booked a year in advance and most have a five day minimum stay!) are expected to attend, but I don’t think I’ll be able to make the trip, even though I’m much closer now than I was in my youth. However, visiting the islands is definitely something that’s on my to-do list. Have you attended Pony Penning Day? Are you curious about the history behind your favorite horse book? Let me know!
One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.
Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she’d love to hear from you!