A Tale of Two Pony Herds

July 23, 1995|By DAIL WILLIS

In a few days, hundreds of people hoping to buy a pony will gather in tiny Chincoteague, Va. Hanging over the annual auction, shimmering like a mirage in the summer heat, will be the legend of Misty, the wild pony at the center of Marguerite Henry's famous 1947 children's book, "Misty of Chincoteague." But the reality is this: If Misty were alive today, she would probably live in Maryland, not in Virginia.

Misty was a wild pony (at least, until she was auctioned), living unfettered and free on Assateague Island, which straddles both states. Today, the little island horses living free and wild are on the Maryland side of Assateague; their Virginia counterparts are a commercial property, herded and handled by humans regularly.

The 37-mile-long sliver of sand called Assateague Island is home to two separate herds of similar size (170 horses in Maryland, 150 in Virginia). Originally all one herd, they are now separated by a fence at the state line -- and by almost diametrically opposed philosophies about the best way to manage them.

"The Maryland herd is owned by no one," says Allen Rutberg, a senior scientist at the National Humane Society. "By contrast, there's Chincoteague. . . ."

The herd there is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, and Mr. Rutberg says, "They're interested in preserving the illusion that they have wild horses. At this point, it's now such an artificial herd it hardly matters. They're vaccinated, rounded up and herded. . . ."

That veterinary care clearly shows the philosophical difference in the way the two herds are managed, says Ron Keiper. He is a distinguished professor of biology at the Mont Alto campus of Pennsylvania State University, and he has spent 20 years studying the Assateague horses.

"At the northern end [the Maryland herd], you get to do your thing," Mr. Keiper says of the horses. "But if you get sick, you either get over it or you die. At the southern end, you're pampered . . . but you're not as wild."

"We manage it [the herd] as a wildlife resource," says Carl Zimmerman, a resource management specialist at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland.

The shaggy little horses are not native to the island. When they arrived there is not entirely clear, although some researchers put them on the barrier island -- in fact, on barrier islands from Maryland to Georgia -- as early as the 1700s.

In the next century, as legend has it, a Spanish ship carrying about 100 small horses ran aground on Assateague, and some of the horses survived and swam ashore.

There is some evidence to support that theory, including material uncovered some years ago in Spanish archives that suggested that the ponies came from a ship called the San Lorenzo that ran aground early in the 1800s. That ship, according to material published by the National Park Service, was carrying small ponies that had been blinded so they could be lowered into mines and worked. The ponies had been working in Panama and were being carried back to Spain.

A fishing-rights commissioner's journal for the year 1826 reports an encounter with 45 small horses, many of them blind. Those horses were smaller than today's Assateague horses, and it is believed that the herd mingled with larger horses put on Assateague by Virginia residents, perhaps as far back as the mid-1700s.

Why the horses' owners put them on Assateague is open to speculation.

"Tax evasion," says Mr. Zimmerman. "Also, free range -- no need to fence."

"The firm documentation is early to mid-18th century," says Mr. Rutberg, who has a doctorate in biology and has studied large animals such as horses and bison. "They were put out there by colonists seeking to evade a fence tax." The tax had been imposed on residents as a way to get revenue from livestock owners.

John Bloxom, a resident of Chincoteague and chairman of the Fire Department's pony committee, offers the simplest view of the horses' tenure on the island: "A long time. As long as I can remember."

Both herds share common ancestors: settlers' horses and -- maybe -- the surivors of the Spanish shipwreck. The division of the herd in the 1960s evolved out of the fact that Assateague is divided between two states and two federal agencies in a bureaucratic tangle of spaghetti -- "I lay awake at night thinking about this," jokes John Schroer, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Essentially, the division is this: In Virginia, the Fire-Department-owned herd is allowed to graze on the land of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The Fire Department issued a grazing permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge. Virginia's portion of Assateague Island is about 17 miles long and the herd is fenced to confine it to certain parts of the island.

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