Every year, on the last Wednesday before the last Thursday in July, Salt Water Cowboys from the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department swim the wild ponies from Assateague to Chincoteague, where the colts will be auctioned off the next day.
But where did the ponies come from to begin with?
European settlers have lived on Chincoteague since the 1600s. A small village once existed on neighboring Assateague as well. On both islands, livestock was allowed to roam free. Once a year, islanders would round up the sheep, cattle, and ponies and brand them. This “penning,” accompanied by drinking and feasting, clearly dates back to the early settler days: It was described in 1835 as an “ancient custom.”
According to the National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service websites, the ponies are probably leftovers from those days when livestock roamed free. But any native Chincoteaguer will testify that the ancestors of today’s ponies were the survivors of the wreck of a Spanish galleon in the shifting shoals offshore. In the days when Europeans were discovering the New World, it was common for ships (especially Spanish ships) to be transporting ponies to work in the mines in the Americas and for other purposes.
Writer John Amrhein (“The Hidden Galleon”) is convinced that the wreck of the Spanish galleon La Galga in 1750 holds the key to the ponies’ origins. The year before the wreck, a hurricane wiped out all the livestock on Assateague. Another storm put La Galga on the beach, in a place Amrhein believes was an inlet, now covered by sand. And La Galga was carrying ponies. Amrhein believes these are the ancestors of today’s Chincoteague ponies. Thus far, Amrhein has not received permission from the federal government to test his theory.
Whatever their origins, the ponies have been on Assateague a long time and they’ve adapted to what sailors call the “harsh marine environment.” The marsh grass they munch on is salty, and the ponies drink twice as much water as a “regular” horse. Their bellies are rounded because of that.
In my eyes, they’re beautiful!