By Amy Lynn Richard
Whoever gave me that first “My Little Pony” was probably not aware they had forever sealed my fate as a lover of horses. For as long as I can remember, these magnificent creatures have captivated me with their beauty and grace. But, as everyone who has been bitten by the horse bug knows, equines are expensive. For years, I was only able to live out my horse dreams through books. One was Misty of Chincoteague.
Like any little girl, the idea of an island filled with wild ponies was enthralling. When I discovered this magical place was real and not just a fantasy world, I was hooked. Someday, I vowed, I would visit Chincoteague and the ponies.
Now that I had an entire barn of real horses to dream about, my dreams of Chincoteague ponies wandered to the back of my mind. A stubborn Tennessee Walker, puppy-like young Gypsy horse, and feisty Icelandic (along with around twenty other equine characters) occupied my mind almost every day – save for that last Wednesday and Thursday of July I meticulously marked “Pony Penning” on each year’s horse-filled calendar.Chincoteague Ponies did not return to the forefront of my mind until 2009, when I stumbled across the Feather Fund. The inspiring stories of the Feather Fund children and the ponies they had persevered to earn renewed my interest in Chincoteagues and shed new light for me on their special quality. I spent weeks perfecting my essay to the Feather Fund, as, at age eighteen, this would be the first and last time I was able to apply for a pony.
Pony Penning came and went, and I never received that life-changing phone call. Disappointed but undeterred, I spent the next three years learning all I could about the breed. The Chincoteague Pony helped me through my first two years of college when, as a car-less on-campus resident, I didn’t have the time or means for horses. When I was able to ride again my junior year, Chincoteague Ponies were still there for me, and I had tripled my knowledge of them through the Feather Fund, Chincoteague Pony Rescue, and Wild Pony Tales websites.
I don’t think my poor boyfriend, Andrew, knew quite what he was getting himself into when he suggested we embark on my dream vacation to Pony Penning last year. Despite having little equine experience himself, he graciously accepted my limited vocabulary of the words “Chincoteague” and “ponies” during the time leading up to the trip.
For that year, I planned and saved as much money as I could to bolster the “pony fund” I began building as a young girl. Sadly, it was not enough. A week before I was to leave for Chincoteague, the dreaded college bill arrived. I had plenty of money saved to buy my pony, but the drastic tuition raise the bill reflected would make the expense of caring for it impossible this year. Crushed, I considered calling off the trip. But the plans had long been made, the week had been taken off from work, and, despite this setback, I was still eager to experience Chincoteague.
So, in the early hours of the Sunday before Pony Penning, the rental car was packed, the maps were located, and we were ready to leave the little state of Rhode Island for Chincoteague, Virginia!
Fourteen hours later, at 8 p.m,, we finally arrived at our campsite at Tom’s Cove. I had never been camping anyplace but my backyard, so I was extremely excited. Because we had made our reservations so early, we were able to secure a beautiful water view site. Though we were the only water view campers with tents amid a sea of campers and RVs, it was nice having the conveniences of water and electricity. Our neighbors on either side were some of the nicest people I have ever met and offered us advice on experiencing Pony Penning throughout our stay.
Because we arrived so late the first night, we only had enough time to set up our tent and go to bed. We spent the next morning, Tuesday, biking all around Assateague. It was so amazing to see all the ponies corralled on Assateague for the first time. I could have stayed there the entire day watching them, but Andrew (who is not really a horse person) wanted to explore Chincoteague. We biked back and spent the rest of the day exploring the local shops. While we had packed our own lunches, dinnertime was spent at Maria’s. It was here that I had the best pizza and fries I believe I have ever tasted. After dinner, we briefly watched the Feather Fund’s model horse auction at the bookstore, Kite Koop. It felt so strange to actually see the girls whose stories I had read online, and I was too shy to introduce myself and talk to them about their ponies.
Wednesday was the Pony Swim. On the advice of one of our campsite neighbors, we decided to watch from our campsite rather than braving the crowds. He even lent us a pair of binoculars so we could have an even more up-close view of the ponies. After the swim, we raced to find a good spot near the carnival grounds to watch the ponies parade down the street. What an experience! After they passed, we left the oppressive crowds for the relaxing Island Creamery. My choice of ice cream was “Pony Tracks,” of course. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the beauty around us before the King Neptune raffle. Though I had promised my mother I would pay for college rather than buying a foal this year, how could she refuse if I won one? I bought 15 tickets for this year’s King Neptune, but sadly I was not the winner.
Thursday was the much-anticipated auction. Andrew and I had reserved our seats ahead of time with trash bags tied to the bleachers, so we were able to get a good view of the action in the ring. I was disappointed to see the ponies going for much lower prices than I had thought, and had to restrain myself from bidding at times. The events of the auction proved to me that dreams really do come true on Chincoteague. For example, strangers were donating money and free board to a girl who had bought a sickly foal. One of the Feather Fund girls was in for the surprise of her life when the foal she had her heart set on went from a buyback to her own pony when it was realized that this foal was actually a colt and not a filly as originally thought.
We spent Thursday night exploring the Chincoteague Pony Centre. The highlight of this visit was seeing Minnow the trick pony go through his routines. What a smart pony! Anyone who has never seen this clever pony perform should look him up on YouTube, as he is a testimonial to what Chincoteague Ponies can do. Also enjoyable was the Extreme Pony Race, in which Pony Center volunteers raced to complete a difficult obstacle course with the fastest time.
We left Chincoteague after the Pony Show, as Andrew wanted a chance to explore other places in Virginia. It was only fair that he choose what we did on the remainder of the trip since it had been dominated by my love of Chincoteague Ponies until then. Thursday and Friday night were spent in hotels, and we spent Friday at Luray Caverns and driving down the beautiful Skyline in Shenandoah National Park. The long drive home took up Saturday entirely. When we finally arrived home, both Andrew and I experienced mixed feelings. On one hand, it was nice to be home in Rhode Island, where everything is a quick drive away. On the other, we wanted to turn around and drive straight back to Chincoteague! Despite a few setbacks, I can easily say my trip to Chincoteague was one of my best experiences to date. There are, however, a few tips I wish to pass on to those who are planning their first trip.
When calculating how long driving will take, be sure to figure in rest stops, traffic and the possibility of getting lost! An estimated ten-hour drive quickly turned into 14 hours after rest stops and hours of traffic in New Jersey and New York. (To avoid an equally arduous return trip, we came up with an alternate route that avoided these two states entirely.) We had fortunately brought many maps and a GPS to help in the several instances during which we became hopelessly lost. Having some doubts about driving? Consider taking a train. After completing our long drive, Andrew and I mutually agreed our next trip to Chincoteague would be by train.
Bring bicycles for ease of travel. If you don’t have bikes of your own, I would recommend renting some on the island, as Chincoteague and Assateague are ideal spots for biking. Biking is far quicker than walking across the two islands and bicycles do not have to deal with traffic and limited parking that can become a problem during Pony Penning. If you are driving, make sure to tie those bikes to your bike rack as tight as you possibly can and don’t forget to stop and check on them every once in a while.
If you plan to stay at a hotel, enjoy! If you are planning to camp at one of Chincoteague’s several beautiful campgrounds, make sure you come prepared. Our camping experience was quite limited, so we had no clue what to expect. After the first night, we awoke to a completely deflated air mattress. Our kind neighbors tried to help us find the hole in the mattress by using soapy water, but it unfortunately was not to be found. We were glad that we had brought plenty of blankets to help soften the hard ground for the next few nights. When we arrived back to our campsite after exploring Assateague our first day, we were shocked to find that our canopy had blown into the water and our tent had collapsed! Though we had meticulously staked both into the ground, they were no match for the strong winds of Chincoteague. So, when buying tents and canopies for your trip, be sure to buy those made of high quality (not plastic) materials, and use as many stakes on each side as you possibly can.
Be sure to make friends with your campsite neighbors. The couples on either side of us had both been camping at Chincoteague for years and knew how to handle any situation. In addition to helping us when our air mattress deflated, they also helped fish our canopy out of the water and were kind enough to offer us a place inside their camper when our collapsed tent became soaking wet. At Chincoteague, you arrive as strangers and leave with more friends than you knew you were ever capable of making.
The last part to plan for is the pony auction. Be sure to reserve your seats on the benches early with towels, garbage bags, or whatever materials you have on hand. Andrew and I were so glad we had saved our seats several days in advance and could watch the auction in the shade rather than under the hot sun. If you are planning to buy a pony, make sure you are keeping up with the auctioneer. His words fly by so fast that it can be difficult to tell whose bid is currently the winning one.
If you can’t buy a pony this time, try to see the day as a learning experience. I was heartbroken when I saw foal after foal going for low prices (One of the colts I had my eye on went for only $450!). However, I now know almost everything there is to know about the Pony Penning experience, and will be fully prepared next time when I am able to bid on my dream pony.