Thanks to Marguerite Henry’s book Misty of Chincoteague, the annual Pony Penning Week which takes place during the last week in July in Chincoteague, Virginia has become a famous tradition that draws large crowds each summer.
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry is loosely based on real horses and people. The book follows two young orphans, the Beebes, who dreamed of purchasing one of the Chincoteague herd ponies who in the past has escaped the annual round-up. On this year the pony, slowed by her new foal, Misty, joins the round-up and the children are able to not only purchase their dream pony, but her new colt too. In the end, the elder pony longs to return with the herd to Assateague Island so the children let her go, but they are able to keep Misty.
Henry based the book on a real horse named Misty that she herself bought from the Beebes and even took on her book tour! She never forgot, however, that Misty was and always would be connected to Chincoteague. She returned to the Island when it came time for Misty to birth her foal, Stormy. Henry went on to write a series of 4 Misty books. The third of which is about Stormy. The final and fourth is about Misty’s final years.
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Nobody quite knows how horses came to live on Assateague Island. The accepted story is that they broke free from the wreck of a Spanish Galleon off the coast and have lived feral ever since. They graze in the salty marshes of the Island and as a consequence, the ponies have developed into squat little beasts with bloated bellies.
Today, the Island of Assateague, which stretches from Maryland to Virginia, is a nature preserve. At the state line a fence divides the horse population of the island. The Maryland herd is called Maryland Horses, while the Virginia herd is trademarked Chincoteague Ponies. The Chincoteague Ponies are owned and cared for by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department who are allowed by state law to keep 150 adult horses on the island. While the horses are left alone for most of the year to live wildly, they have year-round vet care and fences to deter them from walking in the way of cars visiting the preserve as well as a fence dividing the North and South herd to keep the rival stallions from fighting.
Each summer, to humanly cull the herd back to 150 horses, the Fire Department holds the annual Pony Penning Week during which most of the fouls are auctioned off, with some exceptions. On the first day all of the Chincoteague Ponies are rounded up and penned on Assateague. The next morning the volunteer herders, called Saltwater Cowboys (generally retired Fire Department Officials and friends), drive the herd across the channel to Chincoteague exactly at slack tide. This is the annual Pony Swim and draws the biggest crowd. The Ponies then are allowed to rest before being paraded along the city streets to the carnival ground pens. The next morning the auction is held. Some show up to purchase a reliable work horse, while others who have dreamed of their very own pony find their dreams come true. The day after the auction the herd, minus the auctioned foals, is walked back to the channel and let go to return to Assateague until the next year. The whole town of Chincoteague gets in on the action. The downtown shops sell Pony Penning Week art and souvenirs, the movie theater plays free showings of Misty of Chincoteague on a first-come basis, and each evening as everything else shuts down, the carnival grounds swing into action with food, music, games, and rides. It’s like a week-long small-town party.
Plan Your Visit
This annual event is so popular that every room in town gets booked. Also, many of the accommodations in town require that you pay for the entire week. According to my observations, you’ll have to book your stay about a year in advance if you hope to find room in Chincoteague during Pony Penning week. If you’d like to make your literary travel complete, you’ll want to stay at Miss Molly’s Inn, the inn where the author of Misty stayed when she found her muse and began writing her famous book.
If you’d like more information about the events of Pony Penning Week, or to learn about the ponies and their stories, or even what there is to do in Chincoteague for both pony lovers and those not so interested in the ponies, make sure you’re subscribed to the blog! You won’t want to miss the rest of this series!