Most of us have probably seen a wooden duck decoy in an antiques store, at an auction, or in a friend’s home, but the decoy was a utilitarian tool long before it became a collectible sculpture.  Hunters of waterfowl have used decoys from earliest times to lure their quarry into striking range.  Rather than attempting to stalk skittish birds which would fly off at the slightest sound, hunters could lay a trap that would get the birds to come to them.  By putting out a spread of decoys the hunters might trick the target birds into thinking the area safe and welcoming.  As the birds fly in for a landing, the hunters are able to bag a few and put some food on the table.  The use of decoys made waterfowl hunting a reliable source of food.

Decoys have been made out of handy materials such as reeds, carved from a variety of woods, made of cork or injection molded plastic, and even been tethered live birds.

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Duck decoys ca. 400 BC–AD 100
Lovelock Cave, Humboldt County, Nevada
Tule rush, feathers, cordage, paint, 31 x 12 cm
Collected by Mark R. Harrington
13/4512, 13/4513.
Image from The National Museum of the American Indian.

Excavations in 1924 at Lovelock Cave, Nevada revealed a cache of duck decoys made by Native Americans approximately 2000 years ago.  The bodies are made of tule and some of them have duck feathers attached to make them seem more life-like.  Today they can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

In the United States, following the Civil War, subsistence hunting of waterfowl was rapidly replaced by market hunting.  The booming cities of the country required staggering amounts of food, and fowl of all sorts was on the menu.   To meet this need hunters began to harvest waterfowl in huge numbers.  To do this, they needed equally large numbers of decoys.  With a wide spread of decoys, several flocks of waterfowl could be lured into a small area.  Hunters would then use extremely large shotguns called punt guns, to harvest as many as 100 birds with a single shot.

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Waterfowl hunter with mounted punt gun.  By Sydney Harold Smith (or collaborators on his behalf) – This file has been provided by York Museums Trust as part of a GLAMwiki partnership., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31565244

At the same time the popularity of sport hunting was on the rise.  The wealthy members of shooting clubs created an additional demand for decoys.  Some market hunters began to supplement their income by carving and selling decoys to sport hunters.  Regional carvers emerged specializing in the local varieties of waterfowl.  This trend towards the commercialization of decoy carving was intensified when over-hunting led to the regulation of wildfowl shooting.

In 1913, the Federal Migratory Bird Law, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, effectively ended market gunning in the United States and transformed waterfowl hunting into a highly regulated sport.  Many of the men that had made a living through market hunting now turned to decoy carving.  As specific carvers became highly sought after, wait lists for custom, hand-carved decoys became common.   Seeing an opportunity, entrepreneurs such as George Petersen, Jasper N. Dodge, and William J. Mason opened factories to produce decoys on an industrial scale.

 

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Early factory Mallard drake.  George Petersen Factory.  Image from RJB Antiques.

Fast forward to the present day and what began as hunting equipment has become valuable American folk art.  Decoys carved by individuals, as well as those made in factories, are in high demand.  In 2007 two decoys by A. Elmer Crowell, a carver from East Harwich, Massachusetts, were sold in a private sale for $1.1 million each!  His preening Pintale drake duck, and sleeping Canada Goose, are both quite beautiful and have each set records in past sales.  I expect they will again the next time they are for sale.

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Preening Pintail drake, circa 1915.  Image from Antiques and the Arts Weekly.
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The sleeping Canada Goose decoy, circa 1917.  Image from Antiques and the Arts Weekly.

The Library holds numerous books on the history of the use and manufacture of decoys, as well as books dealing with the collection of them.  If you have a decoy sitting on the mantle piece perhaps you can come to the Library to research it’s origins.


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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Occasionally the drama of horse racing spills over from the racetrack.  In 1977 it splashed onto a mare called Fanfreluche, who was stolen from Claiborne Farm near Paris, Kentucky, and was missing without a trace for several months.  This tale of intrigue was covered by many news outlets but for all things Thoroughbred, The Blood-Horse Weekly magazine is the ideal resource.  Fortunately the Library holds nearly a complete run of this essential Thoroughbred horse periodical and I was able to get all the details of this odd incident.

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Fanfreluche racing.  Blood-Horse Weekly, July 4, 1977 (2844-5).  NSLM periodicals collection.

Born in 1967, and owned by Jean-Louis Levesque, Fanfreluche had an excellent record on the track, earning $238,688 and being named 1970 Canadian Horse of the Year.  An injury during her fourth year ended her racing career and she embarked on a new career as a broodmare in which she would prove equally successful.  In 1977 she journeyed south to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky to be bred to Secretariat and was soon confirmed as in foal to the famous Triple Crown winner.

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Fanfreluche.  Blood-Horse Weekly, July 11, 1977 (2924).  NSLM periodicals collection.

On June 26th Fanfreluche vanished from a grazing field she shared with several other broodmares.  She was last seen late in the afternoon by farm staff.  Later in the evening when the head count came up one short it was assumed that the missing mare was simply out of view.  The next morning the stunning truth was revealed, Fanfreluche was missing.

The State police and the FBI were called in.  Investigation of the area turned up two cut fences…

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A cut fence. Blood-Horse Weekly, July 4, 1977 (2844-5). NSLM periodicals collection.

and a trail that led along a stone wall to a wooded area near the road, where the hoof prints stopped.  Presumably the thief had a van waiting, loaded Fanfreluche into it, and made his get away.

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The escape route. Blood-Horse Weekly, July 4, 1977 (2844-5). NSLM periodicals collection.

The authorities, indeed everyone, expected a ransom call.  Although she was valuable, due to strict registration rules Fanfreluche wouldn’t be worth much to the thief.  In much the same way that a stolen artwork is difficult if not impossible to sell, a famous horse with registration lip tattoo would be impossible to pass off as another horse.  Inexplicably no phone call came.

After a week or two the State Police released these photos to the public hoping that someone had seen the missing mare.

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Blood-Horse Weekly, July 11, 1977 (2924).  NSLM periodicals collection.

In an attempt to drum up leads, a false story was circulated that Fanfreluche required medication.  Also a $25,000 reward was offered for information leading to a conviction.  In July an arrest warrant was issued for William Michael McCandless.  He voluntarily turned himself in and denied any connection with the crime.  He was arraigned on July 29th, but there was still no sign of the missing horse.

It wasn’t until December 8th that a tip led investigators to the rural town of Tompkinsville, Kentucky.  At the home of Larry McPherson a mare matching the description of Fanfreluche is discovered and her identity is confirmed from her lip tattoo.  McPherson had been in possession of the horse since shortly after her kidnapping.  One morning his neighbor had spotted a stray horse and assumed that it belonged to McPherson.  They called to alert him and he went out expecting to find one of his horses.

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The road where Fanfreluche was found (top) and the McPherson home (bottom).  Blood-Horse Weekly, Dec 19, 1977 (6199-6202).  NSLM periodicals collection.

Instead it was an unknown horse.  He retrieved the horse and told the neighbor it wasn’t his and to pass the word around that there was a stray horse at his place.  He expected the owner to turn up shortly to claim their animal.  When no one did he reported it to the local police.  No one made the connection to the race horse that had been stolen about 150 miles away.  Eventually McPherson named the stray Brandy and occasionally used her for pleasure riding.   He reported that she was very gentle but was difficult to catch, and that she never seemed to like the name he had given her and had never responded when he used it.

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The McPhersons and “Brandy.”  Blood-Horse Weekly, Dec 19, 1977 (6199-6202).  NSLM periodicals collection.

The McPhersons were cleared of any connection to the theft.  Although Fanfreluche was in need of a brushing and having her hooves trimmed, she was none the worse for wear from her time as an ordinary horse.  She returned to the luxury of Claiborne Farm and in February gave birth to a healthy colt named Sain Et Sauf, or Safe and Sound.

Fanfreluche had a long and productive life before passing away in 1999 at the age of 32.  She is a member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and also won the Sovereign Award for outstanding broodmare.  She had 18 foals.  14 of them were winners, five were stakes winners, and three were champions.

William Michael McCandless was convicted of the theft and sentenced to four years in prison.  It wasn’t his first run in the with law and it wouldn’t be his last.

The Library has a large collection of periodicals dating from the late 1700’s to the present day.  Only our active subscriptions are available without an appointment in the Main Reading Room.  The bulk of the collection is in the Lower Level Reading Room which requires an appointment to visit.  I am currently working on cataloging the periodicals collection so in the near future it will be easy to see what we have available by using our online catalog.


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.

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

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 2017, over 40 original watercolors by English artist Reuben Ward Binks (1880-1950) were donated to the National Sporting Library & Museum as part of a generous bequest from the late Mrs. Elizabeth Dunn Clark of Middleburg (March 23, 1936–April 7, 2017), breeder and owner of Springfield Farm Labrador Retriever kennels and founder of the Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac.  Sporting Dogs by Reuben Ward Binks, an exhibition of the works is on view at the National Sporting Library & Museum through September 30, 2018.

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Reuben Ward Binks (English, 1880-1950), Anxious Moments: F.T. CH. “Kirkmahoe Rover”, F.T. CH. “Banchory Ben”, and F.T. CH. “Banchory Bright” in Marsh, watercolor on paper heightened with gouache, 14 x 17 3/4 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017, photo by Finley Stewart

The collection features portraits of sporting dogs, primarily Labrador Retrievers, from the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the depictions are of canines from the kennels of the English sporting dog enthusiast Countess Lorna Howe (c.1890-1961). She was influential in the development of the Labrador Retriever breed in England. Born Lorna Katherine Curzon, she acquired her title with the marriage to her second husband, Richard George Penn Curzon, the 4th Earl Howe (1861-1929) in 1927.

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[image source http://www.gentlesteplabrador.it/educazione/76-le-origini-del-labrador-retriever/ ]
Howe first began working with Labrador Retrievers in 1913 and quickly became a leading owner, breeder, and trainer. She helped organize the British Labrador Club in 1916 and was chairman from 1935 until her death in 1961. Dogs from her Banchory kennel won numerous championships. Howe eventually owned and competed a variety of dogs, including pointers, setters, spaniels, and Pugs, but the Labrador remained her favorite throughout her life.

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Reuben Ward Binks (English, 1880-1950), Yellow Lab Retrieving a Drake Mallard from the River, watercolor on paper heightened with gouache, 8 1/2 x 11 5/8 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017, photo by Finley Stewart

Scandal of Glynn was the first Labrador owned by Lorna Howe. Before dying at the young age of five from canine typhus, he sired one litter of puppies which included only one dog (male), named Banchory Bolo. Banchory Bolo (1915-1927) became a champion Labrador Retriever owned by Lorna Howe. A highly successful competitor at field trials and the foundational sire to numerous later champions, Bolo became known for his ability, temperament, and conformation (body shape), which Labrador breeders sought in the early 20th century.

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Left: Reuben Ward Binks (English, 1880-1950), F.T. CH. Banchory Bolo, 1921, watercolor on paper heightened with gouache, 6 1/2 inches in tondo; Right: Reuben Ward Binks (English, 1880-1950), Scandal of Glynn, 1921, watercolor on paper heightened with gouache, 6 1/4 inches in tondo, National Sporting Library & Museum, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017, photo by Finley Stewart

In 1918, when Howe purchased the young dog Bolo, he was considered dangerous and untrainable. In her 1957 book, The Popular Labrador Retriever, she chronicles her story of caring for the dog through illness, earning the animal’s trust through kindness, and training him to become a winning retriever. A copy of Howe’s book may be found in the NSLM’s Library Main Reading Room.

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Reuben Ward Binks (English, 1880-1950), 1933 CH. Banchory Bolo, Corbie, and Beningbrough Tangle, 1933, watercolor on paper heightened with gouache, 13 1/2 x 15 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017, photo by Finley Stewart

Howe commissioned Binks to paint at least thirteen compositions that featured or included Bolo in a variety of settings and poses. The artist had made a career of painting portraits of dogs and their individual characteristics. He worked primarily in watercolor and gouache, a more opaque type of watercolor paint, throughout his career. Howe was one of his earliest patrons, and he went on to paint portraits for dog enthusiasts throughout England and America, including the British Royal family.

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Reuben Ward Binks (English, 1880-1950), Thank you Snipe, watercolor on paper heightened with gouache, 7 x 6 1/4 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017, photo by Finley Stewart

Many thanks to Garden & Gun for featuring the exhibition on its website.
Click Here to View Garden & Gun Gallery

Plan your next visit to NSLM!


This is Curator of Permanent Collections Nicole Stribling’s final blog post. After 5 ½ years with NSLM, she has left her position due to a family relocation. Her insightful pieces will be missed.

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

The first Saturday in May sees the annual running of the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase race. This Saturday upwards of 50,000 people with attend the event held at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia.

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Spectators at the race. From the Virginia Gold Cup website

This year the day features seven races, both steeplechases and flat races, in addition to the Gold Cup race. Besides the main attraction of the horse races, visitors can enjoy tailgating, witness the terrier race, and participate in a variety of hat contests, or the tailgate contest. The day closes with a live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby on Jumbo-trons.

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Jack Russell Terriers soar. From Photowalkpro blog

The Virginia Gold Cup was first run in 1922. The single race event was run on the Oakwood estate near Warrenton. The course covered four miles and included the fences and walls already existing in the countryside.

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The original Gold Cup course. From History and Origins of the Virginia Gold Cup by William Myzk, edited by Raymond Woolfe (1987)

The organizers contributed $1000 each to purchase a trophy to be given to the owner of the winning horse. The trophy would be retired and become the property of any owner that won the race three times. The wins did not need to be consecutive nor accomplished by the same horse.

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The first Virginia Gold Cup. From History and Origins of the Virginia Gold Cup by William Myzk, edited by Raymond Woolfe (1987)

In 1924 the race would be moved to Broadview Farm where it would be run through the mid-1980s. Even in the beginning the race was a big draw. Along with the Maryland Hunt Cup, it would become known as one of the two most challenging timber races in the United States.

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Race day crowd at Broadview in 1927. From From History and Origins of the Virginia Gold Cup by William Myzk, edited by Raymond Woolfe (1987)

Eventually development of the land surrounding Broadview necessitated a move for the race. In 1982 Nick Arundel located a 500 acre site near The Plains. To be known as Great Meadow, he purchased it as both a preserved green space and a permanent location for the Gold Cup. At the same time, he founded the Meadows Outdoor Foundation, later renamed Great Meadow Foundation, which organized the support of others that believed it was critical to preserve park land for the community.

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Great Meadow. From Weddingspot.com

Unlike the prior Gold Cup racecourses which utilized the existing countryside, Great Meadow was designed as a racecourse. It provides challenging but ideal conditions for the horses and excellent conditions for spectators.

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Virginia Gold Cup at Great Meadow. From Our Community Now

The horses that succeeded on this new course were of such quality that in 1993 the British Jockey Club automatically qualified the winner of the Virginia Gold Cup for entry in the world famous Aintree Grand National. This is a distinction previously granted only to the annual winner of The Pardubice in Czechoslovakia and the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Although the race has evolved over the years into a more elaborate event, at its core it remains true to the traditions of the past. It celebrates hunt riding, hunt country, and the equine history of Northern Virginia, and carries those traditions into the future.


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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