Friday, September 9, 2016

The First Pony Penning Day

By Tiffany Amber Stockton

Last month, I shared the story of my great-grandfather's cousin marrying President Woodrow Wilson while he was president.

front face of $10 gold coin
rear face of $10 gold coin
I mentioned I would try to find this coin as a present for my 40th birthday. Unfortunately, all I found in my price range were replicas. The actual $10 gold pieces are much more valuable.

Maybe some day I can add that to my heirloom items from my grandparents and great-grandparents. Not this year though.

If you missed last month's post, you can view it here:

This month, I'm returning to the little island made famous by Assateague ponies and an annual pony penning event which is almost reaching its 100th year celebration.

History of the Chincoteague Ponies

Wild ponies have inhabited Assateague Island for hundreds of years. A lot of evidence says they are the descendants of the survivors of a Spanish galleon which wrecked off the coast of Assateague. This story, which has been passed from generation to generation on Chincoteague Island, is stronger than fiction. :) I heard it myself from my grandfather, and it's common lore among island residents.

If you’ve ever seen a shipwreck map of the mid Atlantic coastline, then you know there were a remarkable number of shipwrecks. Before modern navigation, ships used lighthouses and the stars to navigate at night. This worked well until a bad storm came up or heavy fog set in, which impaired visibility. This caused ships to get off course and hit sandbars along the coast, which resulted in a lot of wrecks all up and down the eastern coastlines.

These wrecks would usually occur during a storm, and the large waves would beat the wooden ship apart. The large number of shipwrecks, together with the fact that it was very common for ships to be transporting ponies to the Colonies or South America, makes it very likely that ponies originally got to Assateague from a shipwreck.

old chincoteague pony postcard
A recent book written by Mr. John Amrhein, "The Hidden Galleon", suggests the local story about the Spanish galleon is true. In the book, he describes the wreck of the La Galga in 1750, its location, the circumstances surrounding the voyage, the great storm of 1749 which decimated all the livestock on Assateague Island prior to the La Galga wreck, and the appearance of "Beach" Ponies shortly after the demise of the La Galga, along with other evidence. This might not be 100% provable, but the circumstantial evidence he presents is very powerful. You can easily see why this story has been favored for passing down the line. For more information, go to

History of Pony Penning

Penning began as a way for livestock owners to claim, brand, break and harness their loose herds. By the 1700's it had become an annual event, complete with drinking, eating, and plenty of revelry by the entire community. The earliest known description of Pony Penning was published in 1835. The practice was then already an "ancient" custom held in June on Assateague Island. Penning on Chincoteague Island is not mentioned in print until the mid-1800's, and it's believed to have been begun by two islanders who owned large herds that grazed on Chincoteague.

The penning continued on both islands for years. By 1885, they were held on Assateague one day and Chincoteague the next. Assateague also had a Sheep Penning, which is believed to be a custom even older than the others. Word of the events began to spread, and hotels and boarding houses were booked for the festivities. In 1909, the last Wednesday and Thursday of July were set as the official dates for the yearly events. As Pony Penning increased in popularity, Assateague's Sheep Penning wound down and was discontinued by 1914.

Modern Day Pony Penning

After a string of disastrous fires in the Town of Chincoteague, the villagers realized their fire fighting equipment was seriously inadequate. In 1925, the town authorized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to hold a carnival during Pony Penning to raise funds. That year, over 15 colts were sold to benefit the fire company, and the carnival was a huge success. Bolstered by the interest in the pony swim, visitors began arriving from across the country for the annual penning. The crowd in 1937 was estimated at 25,000. The increased revenue from the carnivals and auctions enabled the fire company to modernize its equipment and facilities, and in 1947 it began to build its own herd by purchasing ponies from local owners. They moved the herd to Assateague where the government allowed publicly owned, not private, herds to graze on the newly established Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

That same year, 1947, Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague, the story that made Pony Penning internationally famous. A movie followed, as did several sequel books. The tale of the wild pony Phantom, her foal Misty, and the children who buy and raise her has become a classic, still loved and enjoyed by each new generation.

Pony Penning is still held in July during the Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen's Carnival. "Salt Water Cowboys" herd the horses across the narrowest part of Assateague Channel at low tide, after which they are examined by veterinarians. After a resting period, they are herded through town to a corral at the Carnival Grounds where they stay until the next day's auction. The Pony Auction not only provides a source of revenue for the fire company, but it also serves to trim the herd's numbers. To retain the permit to graze on the refuge, the herd must not exceed 150 horses.

Each year thousands of people flock to Chincoteague Island to watch the Pony Penning and enjoy the Firemen's Carnival. For many of them, the trek to the shores of Assateague Channel on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July has become an annual event, an opportunity to participate in a tradition older than the country itself.


* Have you ever attended Pony Penning on Chincoteague? When? Have you ever attended an event that's similar in nature featuring wild animals? What is it?

* Did you know anything about Chincoteague or Assateague Islands before my series of blog posts this year, or is this series your first introduction?

* Select one unique fact from the post above that stood out to you and share why it appealed to you.

Leave answers to these questions or any comments on the post below. Next month, I'll share about Chincoteague Island during the Great Depression and some of things the islanders did to survive. Come back on the 9th of October to find out more.


Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood, when she was accused of having a very active imagination and cited with talking entirely too much. Today, she has honed those childhood skills to become an author and speaker who has partnered with Nerium International in the anti-aging and personal development industry, helping others become their best from the inside out.

She lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Vaughn Stockton, in Colorado. They have one girl and one boy, and a Retriever mix named Roxie. She has sold twenty (21) books so far and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency. You can also find her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and LinkedIn.


  1. I recall hearing about beach ponies, but this is the first time I've heard about pony penning. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Check out my other posts in this series, Debbie. You'll get quite a lot on Pony Penning. :)

  2. I love your stories about these islands! I never knew much about them before your series. I would love to watch the pony penning - maybe that shall be on my bucket list. Thanks for sharing!

    1. That's been my goal, share more about a set of islands not very well known to the majority of readers. Pony Penning is quite an experience, and not one adequately covered in books. You have to see it to fully believe it.

  3. I had never heard of Pony Penning on Chincoteague before your posting. Your blog post series about Chincoteague or Assateague Islands are the first I knew about them. It's interesting how the fire department has benefitted from the sale of the horses. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Seems to be a nice trend, sharing insights and facts not known to many readers of this blog. It appears there IS a need and an interest in this topic, one certainly worth pursuing in books with stories to keep these islands alive and introduce them to a new generation of readers. Thanks for your support, Marilyn!