March 13th, 2017
Wild ponies have inhabited Assateague Island for hundreds of years. Today two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Each year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchases a grazing permit from the National Fish & Wildlife Service. This permit allows the Fire Company to maintain a herd of approximately 150 adult ponies on Assateague Island. The Fire Company controls the size of the Virginia herd with a pony auction on the last Thursday in July. Each year tens of thousands of spectators come to watch the Saltwater Cowboys swim the pony herd from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island for the annual auction.
On average around 70 new foals are born every spring, on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. Approximately 75 percent of the mature mares have foals each year, a relatively high foaling rate for wild horses. A mare can become pregnant again once her foal has stopped nursing. And with an 11 month gestational cycle many of the mares are pregnant almost year around!
Most of the foals are auctioned off at the annual Pony Auction in July. In addition to controlling the herd size, the annual pony auction and carnival serves as the primary fundraiser for the Fire Company. Each year just a few select foals are designated as ‘buybacks’. A buyback pony is auctioned with the stipulation that it will be donated back to the Fire Company and returned to Assateague Island to replenish the herd. The winner of a buyback pony gets a certificate from the Fire Company. The buyback winner also gets to name the pony before it is returned to Assateague Island to live out its life there. Buyback ponies have actually become some of the highest priced foals sold at the auction.
After the auction the Buyback foals are kept, along with their mothers, at the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds. In the fall, after the foals are weaned, the mothers are returned to Assateague. The Buyback foals, however, are kept at the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds until Spring. Winter on Assateague Island can bring snow, ice, and a limited food supply. These are tough conditions even for the adult Ponies. Keeping the Buyback Ponies on Chincoteague for the winter allows the Volunteer Firemen to watch over them and provide them with food and water.
Sara Daisey authors the Chincoteague.com Blog. She resides on Chincoteague Island with her husband Ted and three children, Garrett, Morgan, and Jenna.