No one knows for sure how the horses came to the Assateague. Some say that the swam to shore from a sinking Spanish ship; others claim the they are related to the Pottock Pony and were brought to the island as as pack horses during the 16th and 17th century. The most likely conclusion is that Virginians who settled the Chincoteague Island let the horses run free on the neighboring island. When they thought the horses were old enough for work, they would gather the ponies, brand them, break them, and set them to work. By the 18th century, this became a regular annual event.
It was only during the 1800s, however, that the roundup became popular among all the residents, becoming a festival that they anticipated all year round, and eventually turning into a tourist attraction, which brought in lots of money for local businesses. The Pony Penning Days, held the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, were officially started in 1909.
During the 1920s, when two destructive struck the islands, the citizens founded the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. However, they needed a way to keep the department afloat financially, so the Pony Penning Day festival soon became a money grab, and they were able to use the money raised to purchase equipment. From then on, they became in charge of the overseeing of the herd and its penning.
At the time the fire fighters had taken control of the penning, the Assateague Island(where the ponies lived) had been sold to a private citizen, so the celebration was moved to the Chincoteague. In 1925, the islanders decided that they would swim the ponies across the channel between to islands. Fourteen years later, they fire department released twenty Mustangs onto the herd's island to create genetic diversity, and then some Arabians a year later. The US Government purchased the Assateague Island in 1943, turning into a national park.
|During the pony penning festival, the ponies are|
herded from their home at Assateague and across
the channel between the two islands. Then, many
are separated and sold at the fair. credit
Almost every horse-crazy boy and girl has read Misty of Chincoteague(who hasn't?), a classic novel by Marguerite Henry that describes in detail life on Chincoteague, particularly the Pony Penning aspect. The picture above actually comes from the movie version.