The Chincoteague Pony Auction is not just your average horse sale, it’s a place where dreams come true. Although I managed to miss the auction by a half-hour due to the unfortunate combination of the desire for a morning beach walk and the auction finishing early, the stories that filled the town the next morning were nothing short of an emotional roller coaster.
The Chincoteague Pony Auction, held the morning after the Pony Swim, is an annual fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department who own the Pony herd. Part of the proceeds supports the activities of the Fire Department and fees for year-round veterinary care for the horses. Some of the proceeds goes to a different local charity each year. One year the small local library was donated $8,000 from the auction!
The cheapest horses can go for as little as $500. The fouls with solid coloring that look the least like Misty (the horse made famous by the book Misty of Chincoteague) often go for cheaper. Misty’s palomino tan and white coloring is considered the “traditional” Chincoteague pony coloring, however most people don’t care about their pony’s coloring because they know the solid color ponies are just as sturdy. While all the fouls are auctioned, only the naming rights are auctioned off for the ones the Fire Department decides to keep. These foals, called “Buy-Backs”, get to return with the herd to Assateague. They are the most expensive, usually purchased by groups which have raised money through the year. The funds from these sales go mostly to charity. This year the highest bid was $11,000, which was for a buy-back. The lowest bid was $550.
The Department decides which fouls to let go based on genetics of the herd and how many stallions are currently in the herd. This year they did not keep any of the male foals because the herd currently has three up and coming stallions. The rest of the fouls are only separated from their mothers at the time that the young males are being pushed out of the herd by the lead stallions anyway. If a foul is born too close to Pony Penning week to be ready, it is auctioned off but stays with the mother until October, at which point it can be picked up by the buyer. The buyers must also have approved transport for picking up their pony. It is no longer acceptable to put the pony in the back seat of your car. Apparently it used to happen.
Some of the auctioned ponies end up in pens in Chincoteague to be used for tourists to pet, children to ride, and in general to be seen up close by visitors because the wild ponies are often far out in the marshes of Assateague. The most accepted use of auctioned ponies is for companions and show horses. There is a great sense of pride surrounding these ponies. The ponies’ fans, therefore, consider some of the uses by purchasers at the auction very controversial. We had seen a few Amish families around town, but it hadn’t occurred to us that they were in town to buy a pony. We learned that the Amish buy the sturdy Chincoteague Ponies for work horses, often used to pull the women and carts to market. Many hate to see them used as common work horses. It is also rumored that the Amish do not treat the ponies well and don’t bother mending them when they get hurt. Thus people have started to attempt outbidding the Amish so much that the Amish use frontmen who don’t dress like them to bid on the ponies for them.
The auction was the talk of the town the entire next day! During breakfast at our Inn we overheard the other guests recounting their experience. It was quite emotional. One young girl had saved her money, done chores to boost her income, in order to buy her very own horse. As the bidding surpassed her limit she broke into tears. As her story filtered to neighboring bystanders, an elder gentlemen pressed a $100 bill into her hands. She got her horse.
Watch a video of Emily Kemper being interviewed after purchasing a horse.
Our innkeeper belongs to one of the groups that pools their members’ money for horses. One of these groups, called the Feather Fund, raises money to buy two foals each year for deserving children. The idea is that through ownership the children learn hard work, responsibility, and gain self-esteem. The fund honors the memory of Carollynn Suplee, a woman who bought a foal each year either to give back to the fire department or for a deserving youngster of her choosing as a way of giving back for each year of life after beating cancer. When the cancer returned, the first family for which she had bought a foal, given the name of Sea Feather, started the Feather Fund. The Fund raises about $3,000 per horse each year. This year as the Feather Fund bid on their second horse the bidding topped $3,000. With the second chosen young girl sitting in the front awaiting her foal, the group wasn’t sure what to do. It was then that the head of one of the buyback fund groups sent a text to the head of Feather Fund, “How much do you need?” The second recipient of the Feather Fund got her horse. The next text was also a surprise, “That was fun! Do you have another?” A youngster who had been third runner up for the Feather Fund and was seated at the back was pulled to the front. She too went home with a foal this year.
I wasn’t even there for the action and I can’t tell these stories without tearing up! If you’d like to donate to the Feather Fund, CLICK HERE.