The wild horses I grew up with weren’t Spanish mustangs in the high desert; they were the little ponies from Assateague Island off the Virginia and Maryland coastline.
Many people, and horse crazy little girls in particular, know the story of Misty of Chincoteague who was part of the pony round-up swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague. The 1947 story by Marguerite Henry has been a staple of reading for pre-teen girls along with The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and more recently the Pony Club series.
One of the other things that made the story so special for me as a kid, besides being set in Virginia, was that there was the collectable Breyer horse model of Misty and later her foal, Stormy. I used to recreate Misty’s swim between the islands in my backyard sandbox with water from the garden hose. I didn’t see the movie until I was an adult, but I did spend hours playing with my model horse. She was so much smaller than my Black Stallion and Morgan horse models, but I loved her just the same.
Now that I’m back in Maryland for Thanksgiving with my family, I thought I’d look up horses in Maryland and it turns out that both Maryland and Virginia own Assateague Island and care for the feral horses in different ways.
The Virginia side is owned and managed by Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and they sponsor the pony swim every year because their herd cannot exceed 150 horses. The National Park Service manages the Maryland side and a fence divides the island along the state line.
One story I heard growing up was that the horses were descended from a heard of horses that had been ship wrecked on the barrier islands. According to the National Park Service there has never been any proof to support this legend. Instead, they believe that the horses were brought to the island to avoid taxation for fencing during the 17th century.
If you remember from your history class, Virginia’s first permanent British colony was Jamestown founded in 1606. I once lived in a pre-civil war row house in Richmond, Virginia that had no closets because they would have been counted and taxed as individual rooms. So the idea of horse owners moving their herds out to the islands to avoid taxation is not that far-fetched.
While I miss the wide open spaces and big skies of the west, it’s fun to be back on the east coast and remember my first horse love was for the wild horses of Virginia.
Watch a video of the annual Chincoteague pony swim.