The colorful coats of the Chincoteague ponies are well know, made famous by books like Misty of Chincoteague. Being a required reading in school (is it still?) every child in America was familiar with the cheerful little ponies on the beach, if they weren’t totally obsessed with them. The story of the Pony Penning is like a legend – Every summer, the tiny island of Chincoteague, Virginia, hosts a unique tradition that draws in crowds from all over the world: the Annual Pony Penning. It’s a pony-centric, week-long event that includes the iconic swim of wild Chincoteague ponies across the Assateague Channel, followed by carnival festivities and the chance to adopt one of these adorable foals.
If you were ever one of those children obsessed with those ponies, make the time to go visit them in person. It should be a bucket list item for every pony obsessed kid, of any age.
The Best Time to Go
You can see the ponies year round, but if you want to see the Pony Penning, plan to go the last or almost last week of July. The big events of the Pony Penning happen on the last Wedneday and Thursday of the month. So, in 2024, the fun kicks off around July 24th, with the big swim on July 31st.
Since that’s their big tourist week, with crowds as large as 50,000 people, book your accommodation and activities early.
Other than that week, summer is good for spending time at the beach, but there still will be crowds, and bugs. If you are okay with cooler temperatures, fall is a great time to go, when both the bugs and the crowds die down. Springtime is foaling season, so you’re more likely to see the babies.
The Pony Penning
Let’s start with the Pony Penning, since it is the big event. If you’re not planning to go, skip ahead for other travel information.
Here’s a quick rundown of the history, so you can know the full story of the Chincoteague ponies cinematic world.
There’s no definitive proof of how the ponies got on the island of Assateague, but it could have been from shipwrecks, or escaped or released ponies from the early settlers. But, however they got there, they’ve been there since at least the 17th century. In 1835, an account was written of rounding up the ponies, and marking them for ownership. The record started that this has been done for many years, so it started prior to this record. It eventually turned into a festival by 1885, with ponies and sheep (yes, there used to be sheep) being rounded up.
In 1909, they set a designated day for the round up, the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. However, Assateague Island was being purchased by a private owner, and they hadn’t yet figured out how to band together to save
the Rec Center Assateague, so they were forced to move to Chincoteague.
The first couple of round ups were done by trailing the ponies over, but since trailering horses back and forth is exactly as much fun as it sounds, especially for 100+ horses, they quickly got sick of it. I imagine someone looked out over the channel as they drove the truck and trailer over the bridge for the 30th time that day, and said, “This would be so much easier if ponies could walk on water.” Turns out they couldn’t, but in what could be called a happy accident, they were able to swim.
When a series of fires went through Chincoteague in 1922, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was created. In order to raise funds, the first official Pony Penning was held in 1924, with foals being auctioned off for $25-$50 each. And, with a few exceptions, the event has been held annually every year since.
Depending on how much time you have, you could show up just for the main event, or you could have a full week of pony fun. There’s tons to do before and after the swim. For the most up to date events listing, check out their official website.
Saturday & Sunday
On Saturday the Saltwater Cowboys begin rounding up the ponies to bring them to the South Corral. The ponies will remain there until the swim on Wednesday, and visitors are welcome to come see them.
On Sunday, the northern herd is rounded up. Visitors are also welcome to come seem them at the North Pony Pen, but since it’s located up the service road, it’s either a 3 mile hike, or a 2 mile bike ride plus 1 mile of hiking. Find the directions here.
The Chincoteague Fireman’s Festival is open on Saturday, 7pm to 11pm, but is closed on Sunday. It’s open nightly the rest of the week though!
Another event to check out is the Blueberry Festival.
The Saltwater Cowboys will bring the northern herd down to join up with the southern herd in an event called the Beach Walk. Park at the recreational beach parking area, and bring water and bug spray!
The ponies will be vet checked, and the buy back ponies will be selected. This takes place at the South Herd Corral.
It’s the main event, the Pony Swim! The time of the swim is between 6am and 1pm, during the slack tide, which means there’s minimal tidal movement. The time of the swim is usually released closer to the date of the event.
Arrive early to get the best viewing spot, or try a boat or kayak rental to get right up close to the action.
Today is the Foal Auction! Make you or your child’s dream come true with your very own, authentic, one of a kind, Chincoteague Pony!
(Pony purchases should be taken very seriously. See below for more information)
The ponies will swim again! Except this time, in reverse, back to Assateague. The crowds have usually died down by now, so it’s a good change to get a better view of the swim.
Buying a Pony
To fully live out your childhood pony dreams, you have to buy a pony. I’m not saying you have to, but I am saying you’re not going to be able to fulfill your childhood wish of a pony unless you buy the pony.
That being said, buying a pony is a serious commitment. Not only are they very young, they are also wild. I have not trained a wild horse before, I haven’t even trained my own foal, I do not feel prepared to combine the two. If you haven’t either, it actually might not be a great idea to buy a pony. It might be a pretty terrible idea. But, if you have, or if you have a trainer helping you, it might be a really cool idea. Frankly, it’s a dream of mine, once I’m more prepared.
So, assuming you are a responsible person, who knows and understand horses, has likely owned one of more horses before, and is confident in your ability to manage a wild foal, here’s what you need to know about buying a pony.
These ponies are not cheap. Don’t come here looking for a deal, this isn’t the place for that. In 2022, a record of $450,200 was raised from the sale of 63 ponies. That’s an average of $7,000 a pony. The highest priced pony went for $32,000, which was a buy back, and the lowest went for $2,500. They are realistically mostly under 10k. See what the foals went for in the last auction.
No Registering in Advance Required for in-person bidding. Show up, raise your hand to bid. Be careful about scratching your back, or swatting at flies, all hand raises are considered bids. Wear a hat, sunscreen and consider bringing your own chair.
Online Bidding. They have offered online bidding since 2020 and will likely have it in the future. You must pre-register.
All Ponies Must be picked up by 5pm Friday. Be prepared with your trailer, but also know that the pony committee must approve your trailer. This is not the time to demonstrate how your minivan can also fit a pony, if you put a tarp down. Show up with a legitimate trailer.
Owning a Chincoteague pony is a dream for many, and the foal auction is your chance to make it a reality. But be prepared.
The Ponies are there YEar Round
Despite all the hoopla about the Pony Penning, Chincoteague Island is open for the rest of the year, too. The ponies will be there, no matter what time of the year you’re going to go.
While the ponies are the stars of the show, Chincoteague has much more to offer.
- Assateague Island National Seashore: Explore miles of pristine beaches, dunes, and marshes teeming with wildlife. Kayak through the backwaters or hike along scenic trails.
- Chincoteague Island Wildlife Refuge
- Museum of Chincoteague
- Chincoteague Veteran’s Memorial Park – It’s important for your kids to get their running around time, too!
- Black Narrows Brew – for an interesting selection of beers.
- Beebe Ranch – the actual home of Misty herself. It was recently purchased by the Museum of Chincoteague, so they will likely be opening it up to the public soon, but right now there’s nothing official up. I would guess they’ll have it open before the next Pony Penning, but that’s just me guessing.
Things to dO
- Book a boat tour. A great way to get up close to see the wild ponies. Since Chincoteague is waterfront, there’s a few options for this. There’s even one specifically for looking at birds. Here’s small group, and here’s a private tour.
- Kayak Tour – For those who love looking at ponies while doing physical labor. Just kidding, it’s fun, especially if you’re concerned about missing workouts while on vacation.
- Rent a bike. Chincoteague is extremely bike friendly.
Chincoteague is still delightfully quaint, so you aren’t likely to find big resorts here. Instead, there’s some of the usual chain hotels, as well as a few boutique inns. Here are some pretty cool ones:
Key West Cottages
A little bit of tropical flair in the mid-Atlantic. These adorable cottages are modern tiny homes away from home. Nicely decorated and equipped with tiny kitchens and living spaces, they are ideal for families. Close to town, and they provide free bikes. Plus a pool and sandy area to hang out in, this is a perfect getaway in a getaway town.
This delightful, family owned inn is minutes from an undeveloped beach, and walking distance of the wildlife refuge. They love the ponies, and there’s even some on site! Inn amenities include a heated pool, hot tub, gym, sauna, and bike and beach rentals.
Chincoteague Island is a beautiful place, combining ponies and beach time. It’s a place where the pace of life relaxes, and families can spend time making memories. As you pack your bags to leave, make sure you note your favorite ponies that you saw – you can look out for them the next time you visit.