With winter weather closing in and the holiday season nearly upon us, one might find oneself stuck inside with visiting family and searching for an activity to fill the time.  If the allure of the television has waned, and you’d like to do something that gets everyone actively involved, I suggest going old school.  How about a card or dicing game?  If you’re rusty on the rules or want to try a new game, reaching for a copy of one Edmond Hoyle’s books would be a good place to start.

Beginning in 1742, Edmond Hoyle (1672-1769) wrote several treatises on a variety of card games and backgammon.  In 1748 his publisher, Thomas Osborne, began to sell a compilation of Hoyle’s earlier works.  As a result of these publications Hoyle eventually became the acknowledged expert on the rules for many games, especially Whist.  The phrase, “according to Hoyle” has become idiomatic in English, meaning according to the rules, or according to the highest authority.

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Edmond Hoyle.  From Wikimedia Commons

Although today Hoyle is the most well known name in table game rule books, he was not the first to publish such works.  The Library holds two volumes of an earlier title, The Compleat Gamester.  The first edition of this book was published anonymously in 1674.  It covered numerous card games, games from the backgammon genre, and several outdoor sports.  Its full title was, The Compleat Gamester: Or, Instructions How to Play at Billiards, Trucks, Bowls, and Chess. Together with all manner of usual and most Gentile Games either on Cards or Dice. To which is added, The Arts and Mysteries of Riding, Racing, Archery, and Cock-Fighting.”

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Frontispiece from the 1710 edition of The Compleat Gamester.  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

Over the next 50 years the popular book was reissued and reprinted frequently.  Several new editions with additional material and various subtitles appeared.  NSLM holds an edition from 1710 called, The Compleat Gamester: or instructions how to play at all manner of usual, and most gentile games, either on cards, dice, billiards, trucks, bowls, or chess; also the arts and misteries of riding, racing, archery and cock-fighting.  To which is added, the game Basset; with a discourse of gaming in general.  The description of a gaming ordinary, and the character of a gamester.  With a song on the game at Piquet.  Despite this title, much of the material in the book does not concern how to play games but rather how to spot a cheater.  In this excerpt from the Epistle to the Reader that precedes the text, the author’s opinion of “gamesters” is made quite clear,

Mistake me not, it is not my intention to make Gamesters by this collection, but to inform all in part how to avoid being cheated by them: If I am imperfect in my discoveries, impute it to my being no profest Gamester, and the hatred I bear that hellish society; by whom I know I shall be laught at, and with whom if I should converse, I might sooner by my study come to be Nature’s Secretary, and unriddle all her Arcanas than collect from them any new unpractised secret by which they bubble ignorant credulity, and purchase money and good apparel with everlasting shame and infamy.

To conclude, let me advise you, if you play (when your business will permit) let not a covetous desire of winning another’s money engage you to the losing your own, which will not only disturb your mind, but by the disreputation of being a Gamester, if you lose not your estate, you will certainly lose your credit and good name, than which there is nothing more valuable (Compleat Gamester, 1710).

The author’s anonymity and the vehemence of his opinion of “gamesters” makes me wonder if he wasn’t expertly fleeced himself.  Perhaps this book is his revenge on the culprit.

Individual games are given basic descriptions but generally there is not much information on actual game play or strategy.  Instead the author offers clear descriptions of some techniques used by “gamesters” to cheat other players.  For example, he describes Piping, where the gamester’s accomplice, on the pretense of leisurely smoking a pipe, adopts a position in which he is able to view the cards of the gamester’s opponent.   The accomplice is then able to signal the contents of the dupe’s hand to the gamester.  The signals consist of various finger placements on the pipe, which the gamester can see and decipher.  Ironically given the author’s clear disapproval of cheating, the detailed descriptions he provides of it serve not only as a warning to would-be marks, but also as instructions for would be gamesters.

In addition to practical gaming advice, the author also offers commentary that is sometimes comical or clever.  I love this line about bowling, “A Bowling-Green, or Bowling-Ally is a place where three things are thrown away besides the Bowls, viz. Time, Money and Curses, at the last ten for one” (Compleat Gamester (1710), p. 35).

In 1719 in a bid to capitalize on the popularity of The Compleat Gamester, notorious bookseller Edmund Curll hired Richard Seymour to write The Court Gamester.   The volume dealt with Ombre, Piquet, and Chess.  Apparently Curll’s gambit of offering a book on a similar topic with a similar name to the popular Compleat Gamester paid off as there were four more editions published by 1732.  In 1734 the two titles were published together as, The Compleat Gamester in Three Parts.  The Library holds a 1739 edition of this combined title.

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Frontispiece of the 1739 edition of The Compleat Gamester: in Three Parts by Richard Seymour.  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of Russell Arundel.

The work includes instructions and rules for card games (ombre, quadrille, quintile, piquet, basset, faro, whist, all-fours, cribbage, put, lue, brag, &c.), chess, English and French billiards, riding, horse racing, archery, cock fighting and bowling.

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Charles Cotton, the original Gamester.  From Wikimedia Commons

In addition to updating the rules of game playing, the preface of this book identifies the author of the original 1674 Compleat Gamester: “The second and third parts of this treatise were originally written by Charles Cotton Esq; some years since, but are now rectified according to the present standard of play” (page viii).  Charles Cotton is best known today as the author of portions of Isaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler.  He died insolvent in 1687, 13 years after the publication of The Compleat Gamester, but I could not find anything indicating that he had gambled away his money or been swindled by a nefarious gamester.  His motivation for penning the book remains a mystery.

Although The Compleat Gamester retained its popularity for three quarters of a century, eventually Edmond Hoyle’s publications eclipsed it.*  The final edition of Gamester appeared in 1754.

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A Hoyle’s branded book for sale today on Amazon.

Rule books featuring the name Hoyle are still in production today.  Over time new editions featured rules for new games and eliminated those for games that fell out of favor.  If you plan ahead a bit and lay in a couple decks of cards and some dice, along with a copy of Hoyle’s or even one of the editions of The Compleat Gamester, you’ll have an activity for snowbound evenings.  Maybe you’ll learn how to play Whist and can show off that knowledge the next time Jane Austen’s stories come up.

* David Levy’s blog, Edmond Hoyle, Gent. provided a great deal of the publication history contained in this post.  It is also chock full of interesting information on gaming, recreation, and book selling and publication in the 18th Century.  I encourage our readers to visit his blog and do a little exploring.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

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Anyone who has ever witnessed a horse race will undoubtedly recall the riot of color and pattern displayed by the jockeys on their jackets and caps.  Although this flamboyant wardrobe, known as racing colours, adds to the cachet of the sport, the colors and designs serve an important function in the racing world.  Each is unique to a specific horse owner and this “livery” allows judges, announcers, and spectators to more readily tell the horses apart.

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By Paul – HDR Style Horse Racing Photo, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

While reports of color being employed in horse or even chariot races go as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, the racing colours we are familiar with today have their origin in Great Britain in the mid 1700’s.  Up until then races were much longer, up to 4 miles, and usually had relatively few entrants.  This made it easy to tell the horses apart as the small field would tend to get strung out over the long distance of the race.  But as the popularity of racing grew so did the number of horses entered.  Additionally races began to be run over shorter distances at courses.  Both trends resulted in confusing clusters of horses and disputes over which horse had won.  Initial attempts at adding colored jackets were unsuccessful as multiple owners used the same colors or individual owners changed colors frequently.  By 1762 it became clear that something had to be done.

On October 4, 1762, the members of the English Jockey Club requested that owners submit specific colors for jacket and cap. To register their colors and to use them consistently in an attempt to distinguish riders among a field of horses or to settle disputes that might arise. This resulted the famous Newmarket resolution:

“For the greater conveniency of distinguishing the horses in running, as also for the prevention of disputes arising from not knowing the colours worn by each rider, the underwritten gentlemen have come to the resolution and agreement of having the colours annexed to the following names, worn by their respective riders…”

The document goes on to list 19 owners and the color assigned to each.  Once an owner had chosen and declared a jacket of a particular color, it became his property.  He was only permitted to run his horses under that color, and no other owner could run their horses under the same color.  However, after the passage of several years, ownership of the colours could be resigned and a new owner could obtain those colours as their own.  The Duke of Devonshire’s Straw-Colour is still in the same ownership today making them the oldest in continuous use.

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A cigarette card showing the Duke of Devonshire’s racing colours.  From Flickr Hive Mind

After quite a few false starts the racing community in American eventually followed suit and the Jockey Club began registering racing colours in 1895.  The first registered set was the scarlet jacket and cap belonging to John A. Morris.  Although registered in 1895, it is said these colours were in use at the Metairie Track in New Orleans in the mid 1850’s.

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Colours of John A. Morris.  The oldest in the United States.  Bill Christine’s top 10 most iconic silks

Over time patterned design elements for the sleeves and body of the jacket, and the cap have been added to the permitted colors allowing for a great deal of creativity.  Today there are over 28,000 registered colours.

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The Benson and Hedges Book of Racing Colours by The Jockeys’ Association of Great Britain, (1973) National Sporting Library & Museum.

The rules for design of racing colours continue to develop.  In the United States owners may choose to have an emblem or up to three initials on certain designs.  While in Great Britain bespoke designs that don’t have to adhere to the traditional rules can be created and registered for a large fee.

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A bespoke set of racing colours.

What would you choose?  A simple, elegant, single color, or something wild with several colors and design elements?  Try creating your own colours and see if they are available for registration here.


 

Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

NSLM is pleased to announce that Dr. Charles Caramello, a John H. Daniels Fellow, has recently had his new book published by Xenophon Press.  Eighteenth Century Equitation: “Military Equitation; A Method of Breaking Horses and Teaching Soldiers to Ride” by The Earl of Pembroke & “A Treatise on Military Equitation” by William Tyndale, provides facsimile copies of two classic English manuals on military horsemanship from the late 1700’s, and enhances them with notes and commentary by Dr. Caramello.

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Eighteenth Century Equitation: “Military Equitation; A Method of Breaking Horses and Teaching Soldiers to Ride” by The Earl of Pembroke & “A Treatise on Military Equitation” by William Tyndale with notes and commentary by Charles Caramello (2018).

Dr. Caramello is a Professor of English, and the Senior Advisor for Graduate Education at The University of Maryland.  He was accepted as a John H. Daniels Fellow for 2017 and conducted his research using several editions of Pembroke’s and Tyndale’s works in the NSLM’s collections.

His introduction and notes serve to set each piece in its historical context and to assist the modern-day reader in connecting with 18th century writing.  Additionally, the included facsimile copies of these works make them easily available to the general public.  The originals are housed in the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room and require an appointment to view, but this new book may be accessed by the general public at any time in the Library’s Main Reading Room.

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John H. Daniels Fellow, Dr. Charles Caramello.

According to Dr. Caramello’s  introduction, “[e]questrian readers of Pembroke and Tyndale will engage with two eminently sensible military horsemen, learn from two seasoned trainers of horses and riders, and, if lucky, discover something new and unexpected about equestrian sport.” If this piques your interest please drop by the library and have a look.

Dr. Caramello has returned as a John H. Daniels Fellow for 2018 and is currently completing a book-in-progress, Horsemen, Horse Soldiers, and Grand Illusions, and is conducting research in the NSLM archives for a projected book on equitation between the two World Wars.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

For approximately 75 years, from the 1850’s into the 1920’s, horses formed a key element of firefighting companies.  Prior to the introduction of horses, humans pulled the firefighting equipment to blazes.  The superior strength and speed of horses allowed longer ladder wagons, and larger pumpers and chemical wagons to be used, and the equipment and firefighters arrived to the scene of the fire much more quickly.

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Engine Company No. 3.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Horses chosen for service with the fire department had to meet certain criteria.  Often departments had specific weight requirements for horses.  For example, the weight requirements in the Detroit fire department were as follows:  Horses pulling hose wagons must weigh at least 1,100 pounds, to haul a steamer 1,400 pounds, and for a hook and ladder wagon 1,700 pounds.  Both mares and stallions were eligible for service.  The key traits necessary included strength, speed, obedience, intelligence, and fearlessness.

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Working Horses : Looking Back 100 Years to America’s Horse-Drawn Days by Charles Philip Fox (1990).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Little River Foundation.

After their frantic dash to the scene, horses were expected to stand calmly amidst the chaos while their human partners fought the fire.

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The team pulling the ladder wagon waiting calmly.  Working Horses : Looking Back 100 Years to America’s Horse-Drawn Days by Charles Philip Fox (1990).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Little River Foundation.

At the fire station, the horses were housed in stalls next to the equipment they were to pull.  When an alarm sounded, the stall doors would open and the horses were trained to dash to their positions in front of the wagons.  Harnesses suspended above them were dropped onto the horses’ backs, specially designed collars were snapped closed, and the team was charging out of the station house in only a few seconds.

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A three horse harness ready for horses to dash into position.  Note the stall doors in the background on the right.  Working Horses : Looking Back 100 Years to America’s Horse-Drawn Days by Charles Philip Fox (1990).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Little River Foundation.

This video  from The Aurora Regional Fire Museum’s exhibit, Getting There • Getting Water • Getting Rescued: 150 years of the tools and technology used to fight fires and save lives, shows the fire horses in action.  We can see how quickly the team responds to an alarm, and how excited the horses are to jump into action.  The various types of wagons used can be seen, including pumpers and a ladder truck, as they roll out of the station.

The fire horses were well cared for and received daily exercise and grooming.  Some departments were large enough to employ their own veterinarians and farriers, and some had horse ambulances to support their equine members.  Working together in such strenuous and stressful conditions, it is not surprising that the firefighters developed strong bonds with their horses.  This can be seen in the numerous tributes to specific horses as they retired or died in the line of duty.

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Obituary for the popular retired fire horse Chubby.  From “Firefighter Chubby” on the Craft Company No. 6 site.

The members of the Rochester Fire Department petitioned the local cemetery to allow them to bury fallen fire horses in the fireman’s plot.  When the cemetery refused, the local chapter of the American Legion erected a bronze plaque in honor of all the horses that served in the fire department.  It reads,

Our FireHorses
Glorious in beauty and in service;
Faithful Friends
We cannot call them dumb
Because they spoke in deeds
In every hour of danger
Perpetual remembrance
Enshrines their loyalty and courage

By the 1920’s fire departments began exchanging their horses for trucks.  In many towns ceremonial “last runs” were held in which the fire horses responded to a false alarm and the public lined the streets in tribute.

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Last run of Barney, Gene, and Tom, Dist. Fire Dept. horses. From the Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons.

Although their day had passed their contributions to the community were honored and they still feature prominently in many firefighting museums across the country.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

Recently I discovered a charming little item in the Rare Books Room.  It’s what appears to be a tiny book, less than 3 inches high.

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Places of Meeting in the Puckeridge Hunt.  F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room, acquired 2007.

Although quaint, it is not all that unusual in the NSLM collection.  We have quite a few miniature books, particularly a collection of Compleat Anglers that contains a number of diminutive editions.  However, when I opened this book, I got a bit of a surprise.  It is actually a lovely color map of, and guide to, the Puckeridge Hunt territory.  Ahead of the folded map there are twelve pages of text.

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Places of Meeting in the Puckeridge Hunt.  F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room, acquired 2007.

The first section gives distances to various meet sites.

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Places of Meeting in the Puckeridge Hunt.  F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room, acquired 2007.

The second lists inns that have facilities to handle hunter horses.

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Places of Meeting in the Puckeridge Hunt.  F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room, acquired 2007.

Finally, railway stations servicing the area are listed.

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Places of Meeting in the Puckeridge Hunt.  F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room, acquired 2007.

Then comes the map.

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Places of Meeting in the Puckeridge Hunt.  F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room, acquired 2007.

The paper is mounted to a fabric backing making the map sturdy and easy to unfold.  When unfolded it measures 7 x 8.5 inches. In addition to the usual roads, towns, and landmarks, the map shows 32 meet sites used by The Puckeridge Hunt, across Essex and Hertfordshire.

Although its tiny size and sturdy construction indicate that this was a utilitarian item, meant to be carried and used while in the saddle, that doesn’t preclude a touch of style.

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Places of Meeting in the Puckeridge Hunt.  F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room, acquired 2007.

The red cloth cover is decorated with a gilt pictorial vignette depicting a horseman clearing a fence, making this little map an eye catching accessory.  It certainly caught my eye when I opened the clamshell case that it’s stored in at the Library.  These little surprises are one of my favorite things about working with the NSLM collections.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

To close out the summer I thought I’d share a story of horses at the beach.  No I don’t have photos of horses in lounge chairs or inner tubes, enjoying the sun and surf.  I’m referring to the Laytown Strand Races that take place this year on September 6th.  Laytown is a small town in Co. Meath on the east coast of Ireland, and each year it hosts the only Turf Club sanctioned beach racing on the Irish and English racing calendar.

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Laytown Strand Races. From Field of Play

This year marks the 150 anniversary of the races.  Originally the horses took second billing to the Boyne Regatta.  The sailing was held during high tide, while the horses ran later in the day during low tide.  In 1901 a local priest who was also a racing aficionado, got involved with the races and turned them into a well-organized event.  Until 1994, competing horses charged down the beach to Bettystown, made a U turn and ran back to Laytown for the finish.  More recently safety changes have removed the U turn, and the racing today takes place on a straight, level course along the Laytown stand.  There are six races on the program, run over distances of between six furlongs and one mile.

For most of the year Laytown strand appears as any other along the coast of Ireland but as race day approaches, a race track gradually materializes.

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With the tide out preparations can now be made to prepare the track.  Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images.  From  The Guardian

An elevated three acre field with a good view of the strand begins to sprout temporary facilities for the big day including a parade ring, judge’s box, betting windows, weigh rooms, ambulance room, the bar, the secretary’s office and the grandstand.

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Coreczka, with Oisin Orr riding, powers down the home straight to win the first race of the day, the At The Races Handicap.  Photograph: Pat Healy/racingfotos.com/Rex/Shutterstock. From The Guardian.

In earlier days these facilities, as well as the crowd, were often down on the beach and the horses ran through a narrow gauntlet as can be seen in this video clip of the race in 1921 from British Pathe.  For safety reasons the beach has been reserved for the horses in more recent years.

To commemorate 150 years of racing on the Laytown beach, the Race Committee has commissioned a book on the history of the races, Laytown Strand Races, celebrating 150 years. 

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Laytown Strand Races Launch Commemorative Book to Mark 150 Years of Racing on County Meath Beach. Des Scahill, Ted Walsh and Chairman of Laytown Races, Joe Collins Photo: Healy Racing Photography.  From Horse Racing Ireland

Written by John Kirwan and edited by Fiona Ahern, the book features interviews, statistics, and historical facts about the Laytown Strand Races.  The NSLM Library is working to obtain a copy to add to the collection.  If you would like to take a look, please contact me to find out if we’ve received our copy.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

In just two weeks the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department’s annual carnival will culminate in the world famous swimming of the horses.  Firemen will become “saltwater cowboys” and drive a herd of wild horses across a narrow channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island and auction off the foals to raise money to support the fire department.  This event was made famous by Marguerite Henry whose 1947 book, Misty of Chincoteague, describes the pony swim and remains a favorite of children today.

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Marguerite Henry and Misty.  From Wikipedia.

I’ve seen the swim covered on the news and I’ve visited the horses at Assateague Island but I’ve never been to see the pony swim.  I wanted to find out more about this interesting event and the herd of horses that lives at the beach.  The Library yielded up several books on the topic.  Most helpful were, Wild Horses of the Dunes by Rich Pomerantz (2004), and Hoofprints in the Sand: Wild Horses of the Atlantic Coast by Bonnie S. Urquhart (2002).  For this week’s blog I thought I’d share some of what I learned.

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Postcard depicting one legend of how horses arrived on the barrier islands.  From The Chincoteague Ponies

Assateague and Chincoteague Islands are part of a long chain of barrier islands that stretches along most of the eastern shore of the United States.  These narrow islands have sandy beaches on their ocean side, and piney forest and marshlands on the side facing the mainland.  Although horses are not native to Assateague Island, they have been there since at least the 17th century.  How they got there is a bit of a mystery.  There are several romantic tales involving herds of pirate’s horses, or horses that survived shipwrecks just off shore and swam to the island, but the more likely solution has to do with tax evasion.  In Colonial times the English levied a tax on fences.  In order to avoid this tax, people moved their herds of horses, cattle, sheep, and even chickens, over to barrier islands like Assateague.  Here the animals had natural “fences,” and were free from both predators and the tax man.  Today there are feral descendants of these hidden herds on many of the barrier islands off the Atlantic coast.

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Horses on Assateague.  From Wild Horses of the Dunes by Rich Pomerantz (2004).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

Assateague Island is divided in half by the state line between Maryland and Virginia.  A fence marks the border and separates the horses into two herds.  The northern Maryland half is a National Seashore and State Park and is maintained by the National Park Service.  The horses here are generally left to their own devices, aside from a birth control system administered by dart.  It is easy to visit and see the horses here and one can even camp among the dunes.

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Map of Assateague Island.  Chincoteague Island is the island between the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the mainland of Virginia.  The horses swim across the narrow channel at the southern end.  From Pryor Wild.

The southern half in Virginia forms The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and is run by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service.  It is a frequent stop for migrating birds and to protect the habitat necessary for the birds, the horse herds are restricted to certain areas.  This makes them somewhat more difficult to view than those on the Maryland side.  The Virginia horses are owned by The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, Pony Committee, which actively cares for the herd.

Although animal penning and swimming has been going on at Assateague as long as people have kept animals there, it wasn’t until 1925 that the people of Chincoteague, searching for a way to raise money for their new volunteer fire department, hit upon the idea of adding a pony penning and auction to their annual fund raising carnival.  Today this event is world famous and thousands of spectators attend, hoping to get a good view of the horses as they make the swim across from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.

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Rounding up the horses.  From Wild Horses of the Dunes by Rich Pomerantz (2004).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

The process begins several days before the swim.  Members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department trade in their fireman’s helmets and hoses, for cowboy hats and bull whips.  They begin at the northern edge of the refuge and slowly drive the horses south where they are penned together in a large corral.  Each horse is checked by a vet and on Wednesday, after a day or two of rest, the entire herd, excepting pregnant mares, the very old or very young, and any sick animals, is swum across the channel to Chincoteague.  It has become quite the media circus and the horses’ route must be carefully protected from fascinated tourists.

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The horses swimming to Chincoteague.  From Chincoteague Ponies.

Once across the channel the horses rest and then are herded down the street to the auction pen at the carnival grounds.  The auction of the year’s foals takes place on Thursday.  Each year between 50 and 70 foals are auctioned off both to raise money for the fire department, and to keep the population of the herd under control.  In recent years, the average price of an Assateague pony has been about $2500.  In addition to bidding for purchase, visitors can also bid on “buyback” ponies.  These are auctioned with the stipulation that they will be donated back to the Fire Company and returned to Assateague Island to join the herd.  People that win a buyback pony also win the right to name the pony.

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Horses after the swim, parading through town on the way to the carnival grounds.  From Chincoteague Ponies.

The day following the auction the remaining horses are swum back across the channel and are released for another year.  They quickly form up in their family bands and disappear into the dunes, marshes, and piney forests.

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Horses on Assateague.  From Wild Horses of the Dunes by Rich Pomerantz (2004).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

If you’re interested in getting more detailed information I encourage you to stop by the Library and take a look at our books on the topic.  We have information not only on the Assateague horses but on a variety of feral horse populations.  If you’re in the area and would like information about attending the carnival, the swim, or the auction, you can view the guide to the 2018 event here.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail