A roundup of the southern herd in November 2022. Photo: Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co./Facebook

New Bill Would Make Chincoteague Ponies Official Va. State Pony

Update: the bill to make the Chincoteague pony Virginia’s state pony has made it to the governor’s desk and is waiting to be signed into law.

With a busy legislative session underway, Virginians from both sides of the aisle can agree: the Chincoteague ponies are a treasure of the Commonwealth. An officially recognized breed since 1994, these stocky horses roam wild on the barrier islands, grazing on marsh grasses and delighting tourists as they meander the dunes.

Recently, there has been movement to have the Chincoteague pony declared the official pony of Virginia. Delegate Robert Bloxom (R) and Senator Lynwood Lewis (D) have introduced to the Virginia Legislature a pair of bills doing just that. If the bills pass, the ponies will join the northern cardinal, brook trout, and American foxhound as official Virginia state fauna.

As a sophomore in college, Hunter Leonard, Public Relations officer for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC), learned of North Carolina’s Corolla beach horses, another genetically distinct breed of wild horse recognized as the State Horse of North Carolina. Seeing the success the accolade brought these horses, he wished to bring the same recognition to his hometown herd. His sentiments are echoed by many Chincoteague locals.

“Last fall, I mentioned to Senator Lewis at his Town Hall meeting here in Chincoteague that the Commonwealth of VA needed a state equine—most states have a state flower, tree, bird … Since the Chincoteague ponies are so famous already, it only makes sense to name them the state pony,” Evelyn Shotwell, Executive Director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, said. “Senator Lewis and Delegate Bloxom are now making our dream come true.”

The Chincoteague ponies have engendered widespread affection for nearly a century. In 1925, the CVFC held a carnival during the annual pony penning practices, exposing a regional audience to the spectacle of the Pony Swim. Now a multi-day public event, the Pony Swim is the process of gathering the herd for veterinary examinations and auctioning off eligible foals to maintain a healthy herd size. 

Chesapeake Bay Magazine followed the “Saltwater Cowboys” of the fire company through ther unique pony-penning duties in our July 2022 issue.

In 1947, author Marguerite Henry brought the Pony Swim beyond the Chesapeake region with her book, Misty of Chincoteague, and a Hollywood movie followed in 1961. Since, families have flocked to the Chincoteague beaches in hopes of encountering the titular Misty and her ancestors. 

“The wild Chincoteague ponies bring thousands of equine lovers to our community annually in search of that magical place described in Ms. Henry’s book. They find it here on the shores of Chincoteague Island,” Shotwell said.

The Pony Swim, held during the last week of July, now draws almost 50,000 visitors to Chincoteague and raises funds for the CVFC, who oversees the event and sponsors the permit for the ponies’ grazing land in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. 

“We’re really reliant on the ponies for fundraising, so we owe it to the ponies to give them every bit of protection or accolade we can,” Leonard said. “They deserve it.”

This accolade would only heighten the ponies’ celebrity status, increasing awareness for their conservation needs. The Corolla Horses’ notoriety led to community conservation efforts, including the establishment of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund in 1989 and the funding of a fenced-in sanctuary to allow for safe grazing in high-traffic areas. 

“Anything we can give the ponies, and everything about a Chincoteague pony that can influence someone—that’s one more person that can advocate for the ponies,” Leonard said.

Besides the economic boost pony-based tourism brings to Chincoteague, the ponies mean something seemingly inexplicable to the barrier island’s people. They value the equines as their own neighbors, grateful for what they bring to the island community.

“Chincoteague is the town the ponies built, it’s like Babe Ruth and the Yankees to New York. We don’t exist here without the ponies,” Leonard said. “They’re as much a piece of the island as the oysters, the beach or anything else here.”

The Chincoteague pony is a symbol of home for those that live alongside them, their likeness adorning schools, immortalized as statues, and taking center stage on the CVFC logo. 

The informally-titled “pony bill” currently has the most public comments of any bill currently being heard by the Virginia State Senate, and thousands have chimed in via social media comments to voice their support or share their connections to the ponies.

“They technically belong to the Fire Company, but they really belong to everyone, and everyone supports them,” Leonard said. “We’re just gracious to be stewards of this amazing thing.”

-Alaina Perdon