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Virginia designation of state pony long overdue, says Chincoteague mayor

A herd of horses walks along the beach as the sun sets over the ocean
Courtesy of Rebekah Leonard
For Capital News Service
Chincoteague ponies enjoy a stroll on the island.

A pony has been the Chincoteague High School mascot as long as anyone can remember, but now it is headed for a bigger arena as the official state pony.

Two Accomack lawmakers introduced bills this year to designate the Chincoteague pony as the state pony. Virginia will be the 18th state in the country to have an equine member as a state symbol, according to the State Symbols USA website. Del. Robert Bloxom Jr. (R–Accomack) introduced House Bill 1951, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D–Accomack) introduced Senate Bill 1478. The Senate measure crossed the finish line first on Friday, Feb. 17 in a unanimous House block vote.

The recognition for these horses is long overdue, according to Chincoteague Mayor John Arthur Leonard.

“I mean, we've had worldwide recognition, and now the state is finally stepping up and making it official,” the mayor said. “It gives us some pats on the back from the state because sometimes we get left off maps and other things, so it feels good to have some recognition from the state.”

The wild ponies have been a part of the region almost “as long as the state has been settled,” the mayor said, “so they deserve it.”

Some background. You may have heard of Assateague Island horses or ponies. That is where Chincoteague ponies come from, during an annual Pony Swim that has trotted along for almost 100 years. The Assateague herd lives on land shared between Maryland and Virginia, according to the National Park Service.

The most common origin story — one that's never been confirmed — is that the horses were brought by way of Spanish galleons, according to the mayor.

“They were bringing horses back with them and a couple of the ships wrecked off our shores, and the horses swam ashore and it was just natural pasture for them,” the mayor said. “So they accepted it.”

The popular children's book Misty of Chincoteague, based on a real horse and written in 1947 by Marguerite Henry, helped bring appreciation toward the ponies, Bloxom said to House members. The book was later made into a film by 20th Century Fox.

The annual Pony Swim on the last Wednesday of every July is a way to control the herd. The week-long event draws crowds of over 50,000 people, Bloxom said.

several horses swim in the water
Courtesy of Rebekah Leonard
For Capital News Service
Dozens of Chincoteague wildlife swimming for the annual "Pony Swim."

The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co. takes care of the ponies with help from tourists, according to John Hunter Leonard, public relations officer for the station. That is in addition to providing fire and ambulance service to the island’s approximately 3,000 residents, Bloxom said.

“It's been a beneficial relationship, mutually,” John Hunter Leonard said. “So therefore, we take very good care of them as best we can.”

The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co., along with a local high school student, were the ones to propose this idea of the state pony to Bloxom, he said.

The Chincoteague ponies are an “economic driver” for Virginia, according to Bloxom: “It's a wonderful tight-knit community … and this is just an extension of them, really.”

The ponies are auctioned off each year during the Pony Swim. The event raised over $400,000 last year and helps fund the fire department and year-round care for the herd, according to Bloxom.

They're also a main attraction for tourists, but they are appreciated by locals according to Randy Birch, who grew up in Chincoteague.

“At Chincoteague High School, the pony has been the mascot ever since I can remember,” Birch said.

Birch owns Chincoteague Island Adventures, which takes visitors on boat tours to see ponies and local wildlife, in addition to duck hunting.

“It seems like every year, it’s escalated,” Birch said of the Pony Swim. “They’ve done real well with it.”

a few horses stand in grass, including a young horse
Courtesy of Rebekah Leonard.
For Capital News Service
Chincoteague ponies graze along the island.

The ponies that are not auctioned off are rounded up and swim back to Assateague, according to Birch.

Back in the day, after the auction there would be some “bucking Bronco” rodeo action to see who could stay on a horse the longest and win a prize, Birch said.

“Because of liability reasons, they stopped that way back years ago,” Birch said — along with pony races at the carnival grounds.

As for the wild ponies auctioned off, there doesn’t seem to be any buyer’s remorse, according to John Hunter Leonard.

“Everybody that takes them home says how trainable they are and how willing they are to work with people,” he said. “They seem to have a calm demeanor and they really accept children.”

Lawmakers showed overwhelming support for both bills. A few delegates voted against the House measure — with one even asking if the vote would be recorded as a “neigh.”

Wild ponies also roam in Grayson County in Southwest Virginia, Del. William Wampler (R–Washington) pointed out during the bill’s second reading in the House.

“I would put my auction up against his auction, which I don’t believe there is one, any day,” Bloxom responded. “I would put my salt water cowboys herding up my herd far before they run wild in the mountains and never get herded up at all.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin and first lady Suzanne Youngkin have visited Chincoteague Island a couple of times, the mayor said.

“His wife really seems to like the ponies,” the mayor said. “We actually had her on a horse during pony penning.”

The mayor said he hopes the Youngkins come back to “officially sign the bill.”

“Hopefully, he will do that in person on the island,” the mayor said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture.
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