After more recent discoveries and years of research by John Amrhein, we have learned that the original horses were not from a somewhat legendary galleon named the Santo Cristo headed for Peru. The descendants of the wild horses of Assateague are now believed to be from the Spanish galleon La Galga and belonged to the soldiers on board. Most of the people survived this wreck which is now buried under Assateague in the vicinity of the lake. The Park service has now displayed a model of La Galga at the visitor center.
CHINCOTEAGUE PONIES ARRIVE IN BANNER
The descendants of horses destined to arrive at gold mines in Peru during the 16th century, have found their home near the old gold mining town of Julian.
Seventeen Spanish Colonial Horses survived the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon, the Santo Cristo, and swam to shore on Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. The Galleon was on it’s way to Panama with it’s cargo of horses to be delivered to the Viceroy of Peru. They somehow survived the harsh climate with it’s hurricanes, blizzards, intense heat and insects. Living on seaweed, bayberry twigs, salt grasses and poison ivy, drinking sea water when the fresh water pools were frozen, these tough horses slowly multiplied. In later years, farmers from Chincoteague island used Assateague to graze their horses, adding some new genes to the wild herd. When the number of horses decreased by half due to Equine Infectious Anemia, Mustangs were introduced to the island. The mustangs could not adapt to the winter and they died the first year. A couple of Spanish Barb stallions were then introduced to the herd to help maintain the Spanish blood. The horses, like so many other island species, became somewhat stunted and potbellied from the high salt diet. They average 12 ½ to 14 hands tall. When taken off the island, the offspring tend to be taller, with beautiful conformation due to a better diet and friendlier living conditions.
These are the famous Chincoteague Ponies. The oldest American horse breed with the newest recognition.
The island of Assateague is divided in half. Half belonging to Maryland, and half belonging to Virginia. There is a fence across the middle dividing the horse herds. Maryland controls the number of their herd, about 140, with contraceptive injections. Virginia, however, utilizes their 130 ponies to fund the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. The Pony Penning and auction were instituted in 1925, after the town was destroyed by fire.
Every summer, the fire department’s Saltwater Cowboys round up the ponies on Assateague and swim them at slack tide across the quarter mile channel to Chincoteague. Once in the water, boats idle alongside to herd them, and the cowboy’s horses are ferried back across to Chincoteague. They are funneled down the main street between the thousands of onlookers, and into large pens at the fairgrounds. No doubt that this is stressful to the mares and foals. There is a veterinarian next to them all the while, ready to assist whenever needed. The next day, the weanlings are auctioned off. Some of the best are sold with the agreement that they are to be donated back to the fire department. These swim back to Assateague the next day with the mares and stallions. The foals sell for $1500. To $6000. The fire department is impressive. They watch over the herd’s health all year, rounding them up occasionally for immunizations, deworming, and hoof care. In return, the fire department has all the newest state of the art equipment.
Maybe you remember the book "Misty of Chincoteague" published in 1947, or any of the other several books written about these ponies by Marguerite Henry. "Misty" was made into a movie in 1951. When we were kids growing up in Julian, Mrs. Henry visited the library and signed our books. Her stories helped make Chincoteague famous. Everyone must know who Misty is!
So what does this have to do with Julian?
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After years of thought and research, my husband and I decided to raise, protect and promote this rare breed as our retirement project. Looking for pure, registered, animals who were not related, proved to be somewhat difficult. Very few are for sale, and only about a thousand are registered. We finally put together our herd, which required almost three weeks of traveling to pick them up in Wisconsin and eastern Texas during the recent ice storms. We brought back 3 mares, 4 fillies, a young colt and a stallion. Included with the horses from Texas was the herd mascot, a very wild miniature mule! Some have had handling and others are wild. They are rapidly learning to trust us and seem to be quick studies. I was so impressed with these wild ponies the first time I saw them on Chincoteague, I realized that they would be excellent in almost any riding discipline. They excel as sport horses in jumping, dressage, trail riding, driving and gymkhana. They are smart and willing. They are strong and beautiful.
An interesting history note; George Washington’s mount for his famous 147 mile ride from Mount Vernon to Williamsburg in one day, was a Chincoteague pony named Chinky.
Atlantic Island ponies, welcome to the west.