Two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line, and they are often seen wandering the beaches, roadways, trails and campgrounds on the island. These small but sturdy, shaggy horses have adapted to their environment over the years by eating dune and marsh grasses and drinking fresh water from ponds. While they appear tame, they are wild, and Park Rangers urge visitors not to feed or pet them. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and allowed by permit to graze on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Each year the Virginia herd is rounded up for the internationally recognized Pony Penning and Auction.
According to romantic legend, the horses arrived on Assateague when a Spanish galleon with a cargo of wild mustangs sunk off the coast. The surviving animals swam to shore and are the ancestors of today's herds. Unfortunately, the horses (affectionately called ponies because of their slightly stunted size) have a more practical origin. Most likely they are decendants of herds turned loose by early settlers. The island provided a perfect grazing land with naturally "fenced" boundaries. By the late 1600's the island supported horses, cattle, sheep and hogs.
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 until the mid-1800's, and it believed to have been begun by two islanders who owned large herds that grazed on Chincoteague.
The pennings 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.
The most renowned aspect of Pony Penning, the swim across the Assateague Channel, dates from the early 1920's. Samuel Fields acquired much of the southern end of Assateague and restricted the villagers' access to oyster-rich Tom's Cove, causing most of the villagers to move to Chincoteague. The restrictions also affected the island's penning. In 1923 the event also moved to Chincoteague with one penning for both islands. The herds were at first transferred by boat, but in 1925 they were swum across the channel and Pony Penning's "modern" era began.
After a string of disastrous fires in the Town of Chincoteague, the villagers realized their firefighting 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. "Firemen 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 thay 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.