The Chincoteague pony is an American breed from Assateague Island. Two feral populations still inhabit the island today, separated by a fence marking the state line between Virginia and Maryland.

National and local authorities use different methods to manage the feral population on the island, including an annual pony swim and auction on Chincoteague Island. Foals sold in the auction go to private homes to lead domesticated lives as beloved pleasure and show ponies.

The breed was made famous thanks to Marguerite Henry’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague, and their enigmatic origin story continues to attract interest to these ponies. The ponies of Assateague Island now play a central role in the economy and ecology of their native land.

This breed profile will discuss the history, conformation, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Chincoteague pony breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Chincoteague ponies.

Chincoteague Pony History

Ponies have inhabited Assateague Island since the late 1600s, but the origins of the Chincoteague pony herds on the island are still subject to debate.

The breed’s isolation from humans and other horses allowed these animals to naturally develop without selective breeding as a landrace. This is a term used to describe a locally adapted and genetically diverse population of plants or animals.

Origin

The Chincoteague pony, also known as the Assateague horse, is believed to have descended from the survivors of shipwrecked Spanish Galleons. The Spanish warship La Galga sank near Assateague in 1750, sparking the legend that the breed’s ancestors swam ashore from the wreck.

One study found strong genetic links between Chincoteague ponies and 16th-century horse remains from former Spanish Colonies in the Caribbean. This suggests the breed shares ancestry with Iberian horses brought to the Western Hemisphere from Spain. [1]

Colonial settlers pastured livestock on Assateague in the late 1600s to avoid taxes and fencing laws. This practice was common on Atlantic barrier islands along the entire coast of Colonial America. [2]

Abandoned horses established semi-feral herds that still roam many of those islands today. While the development of beach towns led to declines in some horse populations, Assateague Island remained preserved as a protected National Seashore.

Historic Use

Historical records from the 1700s and 1800s described stout, hardy, and solid-coloured horses that roamed Assateague Island’s beaches and marsh. Some herds had private owners. Residents captured and domesticated others as riding mounts.

By 1874, approximately 500 horses lived on Assateague. Shetland Ponies introduced to the island in the 1920s added Pinto colouring to the gene pool. Other breeds released on the island include Arabians and Mustangs. [2]

Ponies were brought to Assateague by boat for pony penning festivals. The town of Chincoteague authorized the Volunteer Fire Company to organize a carnival alongside the pony penning to raise funds after a string of disastrous fires.

The tradition of swimming the ponies to Chincoteague came later. Eventually, the annual pony swim, auction, and carnival became a huge success and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC) took full ownership of the Virginia herd.

Today, the CVFC has a special use permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to graze ponies on Assateague Island. Although they introduced Mustangs to increase the herd’s genetic diversity in the 20th century, modern management efforts now focus on population control.

The yearly pony auction helps maintain a stable population in the Virginia herd. The National Park Service also uses contraception to reduce the number of foals born in the Maryland herd. [3]

Breed Registry

The International Chincoteague Pony Association & Registry (ICPAR) is the official breed registry affiliated with the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. The ICPAR launched in 2021 and partners with the Chincoteague Pony Pedigree Database.

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Breed Characteristics

Chincoteague Ponies initially developed as a feral landrace. Their geographic isolation and coastal habitat led to adaptations that initiated the breed standard. However, outside breeds introduced to the island in the 20th century also contributed to their characteristics.

Conformation

Chincoteague ponies have an average height of 12 to 13 hands. But some of these ponies can grow to reach horse height.

These hardy equines adapted to survive on the marsh grasses of their island habitat, and needed resilience to endure harsh weather conditions. They have stocky builds with strong legs and hooves. These ponies also grow thick winter coats and bushy manes and tails.

While head shape can vary based on ancestry, most Chincoteague ponies have large, well-spaced eyes. Traditional conformation traits include short necks, prominent withers, sloped croups, and middle to low-set tails.

Colours

Historically, Assateague horses were mostly black or brown. Nowadays, pinto patterns and dilute colours are common. Some ponies occasionally have primitive markings.

Coat colours found in Chincoteague ponies include:

  • Bay
  • Chestnut
  • Black
  • Buckskin
  • Palomino
  • Smoky Black
  • Cremello
  • Tobiano

Temperament

Most Chincoteague Ponies are friendly, curious, and willing. These ponies have the intelligence and independence required to survive in feral herds, but most owners find they transition well to domestic life with appropriate training.

Disciplines

Chincoteague ponies can excel in many equestrian disciplines. Their friendly temperaments and small size make them popular riding and mounted games ponies for children. They are also used as driving ponies for adults.

Chincoteague ponies and crosses are commonly found in jumping disciplines, low-level dressage, and equitation classes. These ponies are also brave and sure-footed trail horses. But most of all, they are beloved family ponies.

Chincoteague Pony Health

Chincoteague ponies are a hardy and healthy breed, known for their ability to thrive in the challenging conditions of their island environment.

However, feral herds still need human management to maintain a stable population and protect their natural habitat. With appropriate care, these ponies can also live long lives as companion animals.

Genetic Diseases

Several genetic disorders affect both feral and domesticated populations of Chincoteague ponies. Some of these disorders are attributed to genes introduced by outside breeds brought to Assateague in the past century.

Some Chincoteague ponies are affected by degenerative suspensory ligament disease (DSLD), a progressive condition characterized by the chronic breakdown of ligaments and tendons in horses. Research is ongoing to determine the genes responsible for the disease. [4]

Lordosis, also known as swayback, is a condition frequently observed in older feral Chincoteague mares. This condition is characterized by an abnormal forward curvature of the spine, causing the back to appear excessively concave or sagging.

While old age and multiple pregnancies contribute to the development of lordosis, some horses may inherit a genetic predisposition to the condition. [5]

Health Problems

Pythiosis, a deadly infectious disease also known as ‘swamp cancer‘, is a significant health concern for feral Chincoteague ponies on Assateague. While Pythiosis is relatively rare, several ponies have died from outbreaks in the past decade. [6]

This disease is caused by Pythium insidiosum, a fungal-like oomycete. Zoospores spread in bodies of water on the island and infect horses through open wounds. The infection causes ulcerated lesions and tumor-like masses to form throughout the body. [6]

Horses on Assateague Island are now vaccinated against Pythiosis. In affected horses, the vaccine is for immunotherapy to treat the infection. [8]

Equine welfare advocates sometimes raise concerns regarding the traditional Chincoteague Pony Swim. [7] These ponies are excellent swimmers and minor cuts from shells are the most common health risks of the pony swim. However, young or weak ponies that are put on boats, and ponies that are auctioned and domesticated, may experience stress which can have negative welfare implications.

Care and Management

Both feral and domestic Chincoteague ponies need quality basic care to promote their well-being and longevity. Chincoteague Ponies on Assateague Island get routine veterinary checkups during the spring and fall roundups to monitor the health of the herds.

The National Park Service uses a contraceptive vaccine to manage overpopulation in the Maryland herd. These vaccines use the horse’s immune system to prevent pregnancy. [9]

Feral ponies also get their hooves trimmed twice a year during the roundups. However, domestic Chincoteague ponies need more frequent farrier care to maintain hoof balance. Most of these ponies have strong hooves and can be maintained barefoot without shoes.

Domestic Management

Domesticated Chincoteague ponies have additional needs to ensure their physical health and mental well-being. Work with your veterinarian to implement a preventative wellness program including routine vaccinations, deworming assessments, and dental exams.

These ponies do best with full-time outdoor housing in a social grouping to mimic their natural lifestyle. Long periods of stall confinement and isolation increase stress and contribute to stereotypic behaviours. Provide plenty of turnoutif your pony lives inside.

Chincoteague ponies are friendly animals that enjoy social interaction with humans and horses. A daily grooming routine allows owners to bond with their ponies and helps them adjust to more frequent handling.

Nutrition Program

Wild Chincoteague ponies primarily graze on the natural vegetation found on Assateague Island, which consists of marsh grasses and other coastal plants. Their diet is seasonal and depends on the availability of local plants, but is characterized by high fiber content.

These hardy ponies have evolved to thrive on the island’s unique ecosystem, which provides them with the sustenance needed for survival in a challenging environment.

If you are the owner of a domesticated Chincoteague pony, the best way to support their health is to provide a forage-based feeding program that mimics their natural diet.

Weight Maintenance

Feral Chincoteague ponies face fluctuations in the abundance of forage due to changing seasons. During the lush spring and summer months, they have access to abundant, nutrient-rich vegetation. However, in the harsh winter, food sources become scarce, leading to potential weight loss.

Despite the challenging environment, studies show that most feral ponies on Assateague Island maintain good body condition year round. They efficiently extract nutrients from available roughage and store fat to supply energy when vegetation is sparse during the winter. [10]

This adaptability is a result of natural selection, where ponies with the ability to thrive on the island’s vegetation were more likely to survive and reproduce. As a consequence, these ponies developed into “easy keepers,” meaning they can maintain their body weight with relatively minimal feeding and care.

As with other pony and horse breeds that remain true to their ancestral type which was able to survive under harsh conditions, they have a basic metabolism that will not tolerate high intakes of hydrolyzable carbohydrates (HC) – simple sugars and starch. They develop abnormally elevated insulin levels when fed those types of feed and this can result in laminitis. They also easily become overweight.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 385 kg (850 lb) Chincoteague pony with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 15 g (1 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 150 g (1.5 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 108%
Protein (% of Req) 128%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%

 

This feeding program includes Mad Barn’s Omneity vitamin and mineral supplement to provide essential nutrients often deficient in forages. By incorporating Omneity into your pony’s diet, you ensure they get the nutrients required to grow strong hooves, maintain a shiny coat and support the immune system.

Omneity is made with high-quality ingredients, including 100% organic trace minerals, yeast, and digestive enzymes for better gut health, along with amino acids to support muscles. Importantly, Omneity doesn’t include any added grains, sugars, or starches, making it well-suited for easy keepers such as Chincoteague ponies.

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Forage

Feral Chincoteague ponies spend most of their day grazing on the natural vegetation of Assateague Island. If you are caring for a domesticated pony, providing a forage-based diet is the best way to enable natural grazing behaviours and support optimal gut health.

The amount of forage horses require is calculated based on their bodyweight, with the average horse consuming about 2% of their bodyweight in hay per day. A typical 350 kg (850 lb) Chincoteague pony is expected to consume approximately 7 kg (17 pounds) of hay daily.

The best type of hay for Chincoteague ponies depends on their workload and individual health needs. Most of these ponies benefit from average-quality, low-starch and sugar grass hays, but horses in heavy work may need higher quality forages with more energy and protein.

Chincoteague ponies should have constant access to free-choice forage to mimic their natural lifestyle. Feeding hay in a slow feeder or hay net is helpful for extending foraging time and regulating calorie intake.

Rapidly growing, lush pasture grasses with high sugar and starch content can be problematic for horses, especially during the spring.

Research has clearly established that the risk of pasture-associated laminitis correlates with the blood insulin level. [14] This is not related to fructans or hindgut acidosis as was previously thought. It is a consequence of the metabolism of equine metabolic syndrome.

To protect your Chincoteague pony during turnout, follow good pasture management strategies and consider using a grazing muzzle to regulate grass intake. [11] Some horses may need turnout on a dry lot with appropriately selected hay.

Feeding Recommendations

Chincoteague ponies transitioning from their natural to a new home have a heightened risk of gut issues while they adjust to their new environment and social grouping. Feeding programs for these ponies should prioritize supporting digestive function and balancing the microbiome. [13]

Forage usually provides enough energy and protein for most Chincoteagues. However, ponies with competition careers and higher workloads may need extra calories sources to meet their energy requirements.

Avoid commercial concentrates and high-starch grains, which increase the risk of digestive upset and metabolic problems in this breed. Replace grains with fiber-rich alternatives, such as soaked hay pellets or beet pulp, to provide a more suitable diet for your pony.

If you do feed a ration balancer or complete feed, split the daily ration into multiple small meals to minimize the risk of gut issues.

For ponies with a heavy workload, use fat supplements to provide cool energy. Fat sources high in omega-3 fatty acids have several additional benefits for exercising horses. [12] However, the safety of high fat feeding in metabolic syndrome has not been established.

All horses should have constant access to fresh, clean water and free-choice salt. Feral Chincoteague ponies naturally consume ample sodium in their diet by grazing on coastal vegetation and grasses from saltwater marshes. However, domestic horses frequently do not get enough sodium in their diet.

Sodium is important for maintaining electrolyte balance, encouraging hydration and supporting digestive motility. Adding 1 – 2 tablespoons of plain loose salt to your pony’s daily ration will ensure they meet their sodium requirement.

Nutritional Supplements

A well-balanced diet free of nutrient deficiencies is essential for maintaining the health of your Chincoteague Pony. Once your pony’s diet is balanced, you can consider other nutritional supplements to support performance or address specific requirements.

  • W-3 Oil is a fat supplement that contains high levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Feeding W-3 Oil supports joint health, coat quality and normal regulation of inflammation in Chincoteague ponies.
  • MSM is a natural joint supplement that supports healthy connective tissues in Chincoteague ponies. MSM is a natural source of sulfur that supports homeostatic balancing of inflammatory mechanisms.
  • Optimum Digestive Health is a gut supplement that contains probiotics, prebiotics, yeast and immune nucleotides to maintain a balanced hindgut microbiome. This pelleted supplement is recommended to support digestive function in ponies experiencing increased stress due to training or lifestyle changes.
  • Natural Vitamin E is a key antioxidant that is commonly deficient in the diets of ponies primarily fed hay. Chincoteague ponies in work also benefit from higher levels of Vitamin E to support healthy muscle function and post-exercise care.

Have questions or concerns about your Chincoteague pony’s diet? Submit their information online for a free consultation with our qualified equine nutritionists to get help with formulating a balanced diet.

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References

  1. Delsol, N. et al. Analysis of the earliest complete mtDNA genome of a Caribbean colonial horse (Equus caballus) from 16th-century Haiti. PLoS One. 2022.View Summary
  2. Eggert, L. et al. Pedigrees and the Study of the Wild Horse Population of Assateague Island National Seashore. J Wildlife Manag. 2010.
  3. Ballou, J. et al. Simulation model for contraceptive management of the Assateague Island feral horse population using individual-based data. Wildlife Res. 2007.
  4. Halper, J. et al. Degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis as a systemic disorder characterized by proteoglycan accumulation. BMC Vet Res. 2006. View Summary
  5. Cook, D. et al. Genetics of swayback in American Saddlebred horses. Anim Genet. 2010. View Summary
  6. Jara, M. et al. The Potential Distribution of Pythium insidiosum in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. Front Vet Sci. 2021.
  7. Donaldson, S. and Kymlicka, W. Comment: Between Wild and Domesticated: Rethinking Categories and Boundaries in Response to Animal Agency. Animal Ethics in the Age of Humans. 2016.
  8. Mendoza, L. et al. Evaluation of two vaccines for the treatment of pythiosis insidiosi in horses. Mycopathologia. 1992. View Summary
  9. Kirkpatrick, J. et al. Contraceptive Vaccines for Wildlife: A Review. Am J Reprod Immunol. 2011. View Summary
  10. Rudman, R. et al. The body condition of feral ponies on Assateague island. Equine Vet J. 1991. View Summary
  11. Watts, K. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clin Techniq Equine Pract. 2004.
  12. Zeyner, A. et al. Effect of feeding exercised horses on high-starch or high-fat diets for 390 days. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  13. Budzynska, M. et al. Stress Reactivity and Coping in Horse Adaptation to Environment. J Equine Vet Sci. 2014.
  14. Menzies-Gow, N.J. et al. Prospective cohort study evaluating risk factors for the development of pasture-associated laminitis in the United Kingdom. Equine Vet J. 2017 View Summary