The Last Ride of Legend, a Pony Who Lived Up to His Name
Born on an island off the coast of Virginia, home to a wild herd that inspired the classic children’s novel ‘Misty of Chincoteague,’ this gentle, blue-eyed gelding enjoyed an adventurous life with a family in New Mexico. After his death, a mother and daughter went on a mission: to lay him to rest amid the sand and the waves.
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A sickle of moon hung in the black Atlantic sky as the four of us began the mile-long walk to the beach. It was shortly before 5 A.M. on the southern reaches of Assateague Island, off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, but already a hundred people or more were chasing the cones of their cell-phone lights across the marshes and dunes of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Farther south, nearly 15,000 more had gathered in a shorefront parking lot. Blades of grass waved spookily in the glow.
The humidity was like it always is here in summer—hateful—and the mosquitos had their feast. I walked with Mattie Allen, communications director of an animal shelter and free clinic in Española, New Mexico, and noticed how her curly auburn hair had become a nebula that blotted out the stars. The humidity hairdo had become a running joke, a novelty that underscored how far she and her 13-year-old daughter, Maizie, had traveled to be here. My own daughter, Evie, who is also 13, fell in with Maizie, the two new BFFs hitting it off over middle school and pressures to wear makeup.
Mattie and Maizie, who has her mother’s hair and talks rapid fire, are both horse people, and they had invited Evie and me to join them for the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim, a weeklong festival held every July on the island of Chincoteague, a splotch of sand, water, and coastal vegetation that sits just beyond waterways with names like Mosquito Creek and Mud Bay Gut, three miles off the Virginia portion of Delmarva, the rural tristate peninsula that divides the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic.
Chincoteague, which has an average elevation of about 21 inches, is protected from the open ocean by Assateague, a 37-mile-long barrier island that spans the Maryland-Virginia line. Unlike Chincoteague’s 3,000-person urban center—which is also called Chincoteague and is known for hotels, vintage beach-house rentals, ice cream shops, and seafood restaurants—Assateague is feral, an undeveloped mix of windswept terrain, all of it protected as parkland in one form or another, mostly by the federal government. It’s on Assateague where you’ll find the local celebrities: a fabled herd of wild, salt-grass-eating ponies.
How they got there is a mystery. The more mundane theories have suggested that pirates or early English settlers left them on the island to forage. The most fantastic and repeated tale holds that, centuries ago, a Spanish ship carrying horses between Spain and its New World colonies wrecked off the coast, and the animals swam ashore and survived. With only nutrient-poor marsh grass to fill their bellies, the horses grew smaller over the generations until they became ponies, meaning a horse that’s less than 14.2 hands tall—about four foot nine. (Some ponies are genetically different from horses, but these are not; they’re just small.)
As it turns out, that shipwreck tale, long dismissed as a myth, might be true. Archeologists know of at least two Spanish ships buried in the seafloor off the coast of Assateague. And this July, a researcher at the University of Florida published a study that offered DNA evidence closely linking horses brought to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola from Spain in the 1500s to the ponies on Assateague.
However the animals came to be here, Chincoteaguers have been capturing them since the 1800s to use as their own, and since 1925, a posse of horsemen now known as the saltwater cowboys has run organized roundups. The ponies are excellent swimmers, and once a year, during “pony penning” week in July, the cowboys swim the herd across a quarter-mile channel from Assateague to Chincoteague, where they run through the streets, past adoring, gleeful crowds, to fairgrounds on the west side of the island. There, toward the end of the week, about 60 foals go up for auction before the cowboys swim the rest back to Assateague.
Doing all this keeps the herd size in check at around 150 ponies and, combined with proceeds from an annual carnival, raises nearly $800,000 for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which has owned and managed the herd for nearly 100 years.
For everyone else, the week is a chance to overdose on some seriously cute ponies.