MEETING MISTY AND THE HORSES OF ASSATEAGUE ISLAND
Seeing wild ponies fulfils the childhood dreams of one grandmother... and her granddaughter, too.
WORDS Julie Miller
When I was a little girl, I devoured any book that had horses as its subject: Black Beauty, Silver Brumby, My Friend Flicka. But one story in particular captured my imagination and set me on a horse-crazy path of no return: Misty of Chincoteague, written in 1947 by American children’s author Marguerite Henry.
The tale of a wild and woolly foal that is adopted by two orphaned children tantalised me with its imagery of beautiful ponies running free on a windswept island off the east coast of the USA, a landscape that seemed as exotic and alluring as its equine heroes. Fast forward nearly 50 years, and I’m standing on the very beach on Assateague Island where Misty once frolicked, watching her descendants trotting over the dunes towards the breakers crashing on the sand.
“Look JuJu, ponies!” my three-year-old granddaughter Ellie shouts, wide-eyed as the band of 11 mares, foals and a handsome bay stallion snort and buck their way past cautious sunbathers and fishermen. Ellie isn’t familiar with the Misty books, but already she shares my passion for horses and is aware that their presence on a beach is a wondrous sight.
Feral horses have inhabited Assateague Island, a 60-kilometre barrier island on the Atlantic Coast, for 400 years. In Misty of Chincoteague, it’s said the original herd swam ashore from a Spanish galleon shipwrecked during a ferocious storm; others say the horses were simply abandoned by local farmers to avoid paying taxes. Whatever their backstory, the ponies have survived against the odds in this harsh, bug-infested marshland, and have since become extremely beloved symbols of the wild.
A curious relationship
There are two herds of ponies on Assateague, separated by state lines: Maryland in the north and Virginia in the south. While the Maryland herd comes under the stewardship of the US National Parks Service, the southern herd of 150 ponies grazes at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, but is actually owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.
This curious relationship dates back to 1924 when the Fire Company first rounded up the ponies and sold the foals at auction to raise revenue. Since then, the annual Pony Penning event has contributed up to US$200,000 to the department, with around 50,000 visitors gathering for the highlight of the week-long festival, the Pony Swim.
Meanwhile, the Fire Company maintains the wellbeing of the herd, providing vet checks, vaccinations, hoof trimming and supplementary feed. The horses are allowed to breed as nature dictates, with numbers kept to a sustainable level by the sale of the foals.
For the volunteers, the ponies are a source of pride and community spirit. “The ponies drive the economy here in Chincoteague,” fire fighter and tour guide Denise Bowden says as we drive through the National Wildlife Refuge in search of the horses.
When we spot a band, Denise stops the vehicle and we get out for a closer look, albeit from a safe distance. Denise knows all the ponies by name, and explains they even have their own fan club, with swap cards detailing their breeding and distinguishing features.
But all Ellie really wants to do is pat one of these equine superstars. Fortunately, she can do just that at the Chincoteague Pony Centre, home to two of Misty’s domesticated descendants who give rides and plenty of cuddles to adoring children.
Meanwhile, the National Parks Service in Maryland has a more hands-off approach; its herd is managed just like other wildlife, with no intervention apart from administering contraceptives to control breeding.
The fact that the northern herd roams free on the beach, however, presents its own challenges. With the ponies showing no fear, they often wander into campgrounds, and while they may look cute, campers who try to pat them often regret it, with the ponies kicking and biting in self-defence. To try to educate beachgoers, the national park employs a ‘Pony Patrol’ to ensure people keep their distance and not feed the horses.
As we watch the herd meander along the shoreline, I point out the different colours to Ellie. I can see Ellie absorbing the information, and while she doesn’t quite understand the significance of the ponies, I’m sure the experience will resonate with her in the future as she gains an appreciation of wildlife.
This article appeared in volume 9 of Five Star Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.