Wild ponies at Chincoteague NWR
Wild ponies at Chincoteague NWR

Every little girl wants a pony, right? Well, I’m one of the fortunate few who had one as a kid. And I can tell you from experience, it is no picnic to take care of a pony. You have to brush their mane, wash them, feed them, keep the saddle clean, and so much more. Despite their endearing looks, ponies have a boatload of attitude. Mine, Micky, kicked, stomped on my foot more than once, kicked me, threw me off, and cured me of ever wanting horses in my life.

Misty of Chincoteague
Misty became the most beloved pony ever

But how did this pony obsession wash across the little girls of America? Let’s turn back the clock way before “My Little Pony” ever existed. It came in the form of a book by Marguerite Henry called “Misty of Chincoteague,” published in 1947, just in time for the beginning of the Baby Boom. It hit in a second wave, my era, as a movie in 1961, when the book became popular once again.

We visited Chincoteague today, my first time ever to this famed island along Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Misty was a real pony, and the story recounted in the book included real people and real events, something I didn’t realize until today – the Pony Penning, the Beebe Farm – it’s not fiction. For when we walked in the Chincoteague Island Museum, here was Misty, albeit taxidermied after all these years, and books branded by the Beebe family with the brand they used on their famed pony.

The real Misty at the Chincoteague Island Museum
The real Misty at the Chincoteague Island Museum

Assateague Island is where the wild ponies live, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I first read the book as a youngster. Founded in 1943 as a winter refuge for snow geese, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is where we went to look for the ponies. Assateague Island is split between Maryland and Virginia, with the northerly portion protected as Assateague Island National Seashore, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The southerly 14,000 acres in Virginia is where the largest herd of wild ponies roam. Thought to have descended from Spanish stock, their population is kept limited by the annual Pony Penning.

Marshes at Chincoteague NWR
One of the refuge impoundments

It’s a Chincoteague Island tradition that dates back well before the book and the refuge. Salt water cowboys round up the herd several times a year, bringing them to established pens so a vet can check on their health. Originally, it was any free-range livestock; now, it’s the ponies that live in the refuge. The herd must be kept under 150 adults.

Ponies on the marsh
Ponies on the marsh

Once a year, a certain number of ponies are selected to be auctioned during the annual Chincoteague Island Volunteer Fire Company Carnival. The Fire Company volunteers look after the ponies all year on the refuge, so they manage the penning, the swim, and the auction. Held the last week in July, it’s an event that draws tens of thousands of visitors to see the ponies swim and to bid on taking a wild pony home.

Eagle watching over its fledglings
Eagle watching over its fledglings
The refuge isn’t just about the ponies, however. On our search for them, we encountered bald eagles with their fledglings, hundreds of wading birds in the impoundments, and beachgoers along the sandy strand.

The refuge is also home to aquaculture, which traditionally meant oystering and clamming in the estuary. Today, oysters are raised commercially in these shallow waters.

Oyster tower Wallops Island
Oyster watching tower with Wallops Island in the background

Most visitors, however, come for the ponies. And as long as ponies run wild across these wave-washed shores, there will always be little girls dreaming about them.