The Chincoteague Pony Penning Day is a hugely popular event, attracting over 50,000 tourists and spectators each year!

Ancestors of these robust ponies have lived on the barrier islands of Assateague and Chincoteague off the mid Atlantic coast for hundreds of years. The modern Chincoteague Pony is a kind and athletic companion with plenty of stamina and versatility. Indeed, George Washington, our first president, is reported to have owned one which he rode over one hundred and fifty miles in a single day!

The romantic intrigue of the Chincoteague Pony has been marked by several flavorful events. The first being a legend of how these horses may have first arrived at their home. This tale describes them swimming to the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon, the Santo Cristo, in the mid 1600’s. Today it is thought to be more probable that these horses were released on these islands by early settlers who wished to avoid fencing laws and taxation being levied against them.

Another exciting event is the Chincoteague Pony Penning Day. This tradition started after a fire ravaged Chincoteague in 1922. To raise needed relief funds, the community organized a volunteer fire company to collect donations. The fire company organized a carnival, gathering up and auctioning off some ponies to raise the needed money. The Chincoteague Pony Penning Day and auction has continued to take place annually, since 1924.

The Chincoteague Pony was made famous by the children’s novel “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry in 1947. They love attention and generally do not easily spook or startle. They make a wonderful companion for children due to their sociable nature and safe demeanor. They can also do well in many disciplines including driving, hunters on the flat and over fences, and pleasure riding.

There are two registries for the Chincoteague Pony. The National Chincoteague Pony Association was founded in 1985 by Gale Frederick, and is currently based in Bellingham Washington. They provide a registry and studbook of all Chincoteague ponies, both those from the island and those in the hands of private breeders and owners. There are currently around one thousand ponies registered to private owners in the United States and Canada. The Chincoteague Pony Association was founded in 1994 and is open to ponies sold by the Volunteer Fire Company. Many ponies are double registered with both associations. Thirty to forty five ponies are born on the island each year.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Perissodactyla
  • Family: Equidae
  • Genus: Equus
  • Species: caballus

Horse Breeds

The Chincoteague Pony is one of the pony breeds. Ponies are generally considered to be 14.2 hands or smaller at maturity, however this is a general rule with many exceptions. Pony breeds have a slightly different appearance than the light horse breeds. They usually have thicker manes, tails and coats. They are proportionately shorter legged and rounder through the barrel. They have somewhat shorter and thicker necks and wider, stronger bones.
Ponies are well known for their superior intelligence and with good horse training, more tractable temperaments. Many of the pony breeds evolved where there was inferior nutrition and which resulted in a smaller breed. Ponies generally require less diligence in their care and often tend to be more independent than the other types of horses.
Well trained ponies can make wonderful mounts for children. Their small sizes make them less intimidating and are more closely matched to a child’s size and strength. They do well in many disciplines including driving, hunters on the flat and over fences, western driving classes, and pleasure riding. The can also show in dressage, equitation, and other events, with top ponies even being competitive against full sized horses.

Horse Backgrounds

Legend has it that the ancestors of the Chincoteague Pony swam ashore to the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague in the mid 1600’s from the wreck of the Santo Cristo, a ship carrying horses for the Viceroy of Peru to work in the gold mines. It is more likely that settlers released their livestock there to avoid fencing laws and taxation being levied against them.
In any case, island conditions were harsh, forcing the ponies to forage on a diet of beach grass, salty marsh grasses, greenbrier, and seaweed. It is generally agreed that this island environment facilitated the original horses breeding down to the modern pony size.
The two separate island herds of ponies are administered to by two different entities. The Maryland herd on Assateague is managed by the National Park service. They employ the use of contraceptives to limit the growth of the herd to between 120 to 140 animals.
The Chincoteague herd in Virginia is owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. An annual event known as pony penning, whose roots go back to the early 1800’s, is held every year in July. In 1922 fire ravaged Chincoteague and the townspeople organized the volunteer fire company and collected donations. Lacking proceeds to buy needed equipment, the fire company held a carnival on pony penning day, auctioning off some ponies raise money.
The Chincoteague Pony Penning Day and auction has continued to take place annually since 1924 on the last Wednesday and Thursday in July. The herd is rounded up and herded for their five to ten minute swim across the channel at low tide and thirty to forty five ponies are auctioned off. Today, the event attracts over 50,000 tourists and spectators.


In an effort to prevent inbreeding, in 1939 twenty wild mustangs were released into the Virginia herd. Also, Welsh Pony and Arabian blood was introduced into the breeding colonies of Chincoteague ponies. Traits of these other breeds influence is still evident in the slightly dished profile, small muzzle and large eyes of the Chincoteague ponies.
Most Chincoteague ponies stand between 13.2hh (hands high) and 14.2hh, and weigh around 850 pounds. They have a prominent jaw with a refined throatlatch, a broad chest and a short back. There is a thick mane and tail, and the tail is low set. Although all solid colors are found, many, including the famous Misty of Chincoteague, are pintos. Both overo and tobiano patterns are common.

Horse Care and Feeding

They are extremely easy keepers and will do well on low fat and low carbohydrate forage, with little or no grain supplements. They have small, tough feet which need regular trimming, but often do not require shoes. They prefer pasture or turn out with other ponies and horses, either on grass or in a dry lot situation with hay.

Horse Training and Activities

Their sociable nature and safe demeanor make the Chincoteague Pony a great companion animal for children. They do well in many disciplines including driving and pleasure riding. Characteristic of a sports pony, they also do well as hunters on the flat and over fences,

Common Health Problems

Chincoteague ponies are one of the healthiest and easy to care for of all the breeds.


In 2001, a record price of $10,300 was paid for at auction for one of the ponies; the average price, however, is about $2,000. The Chincoteague Ponies’ Breeders Association maintains a “for sale” link on their website,


Personal knowledge
Judith Dutson, Storey’s Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America, Storey Publishing, LLC, 2005
Chincoteague Pony Association, Chincoteague, VA, 1994
The National Chincoteague Pony Association, 1198 Bellingham, WA

Featured Image Credit: Steven Cole, Shutterstock