To see the swimming of the wild ponies of Chincoteague is to witness a thing of wonder. Equal parts Americana, majesty and mythology, the annual tradition celebrates its 91st run this summer.
Just off the coast of Virginia lies the island of Chincoteague, home to some 3,000 residents. Come July, that population swells as tens of thousands of visitors from across the world book out the isle’s twenty-odd inns and mom-and-pop B&Bs. The town’s seafood shacks and ice-cream parlors become overrun with equine aficionados of all ages. The excitement builds and builds until the otherwise sleepy seaside hamlet is abuzz. And everyone knows a local holiday is upon them: It’s officially Pony Penning Week.
Just off the coast of Chincoteague lies the even smaller isle of Assateague, home to some 150 wild ponies. Just how they got there remains a mystery, though many believe they descended from survivors of a Spanish shipwreck back in the 1500s. Over the centuries, the hardy breed has adapted to its environment, feeding on cordgrass, beach grass, seaweed and twigs.
Today, the ponies are owned, in the loosest of terms, by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. A subset of the department known as the Saltwater Cowboys manages the herd size as mandated by the U.S. National Park Service, which oversees the wildlife refuge that makes up much of Assateague Island. The swimming of the ponies and the subsequent auctioning of some of the foals began quite practically as a means to limit the population. This tradition was immortalized in Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s classic, and lives on today.
To Chincoteague residents — Teaguers, as they call themselves — the Saltwater Cowboys are local heroes. The weeklong pony-penning extravaganza serves as a major fundraiser for the fire company, and each night, residents and tourists flood the small-town fairgrounds to take a spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl, enjoy the live music and munch on oyster fritters at the firemen’s carnival.
The weekend prior to the swim, the Saltwater Cowboys round up the ponies, which can prove difficult; they recount tales of tracking one or two elusive individuals who take them on a wild-horse chase. Monday at daybreak, the equines occupying the northern part of the island are herded along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and eventually make their way into corrals closer to the designated swim zone. Hundreds of spectators gather on the beachfront to take in the wondrous sight. It’s a reunion of sorts for locals, who can distinguish each of the stallions and mares by their distinct coloring and markings. The ponies are then vetted, quite literally, to determine fitness for the physical endeavor that follows.
The main event takes place Wednesday, though the exact time is never set. For that, the Saltwater Cowboys rely on the U.S. Coast Guard to determine slack tide, a short, nonspecific window when the water is still. At that precise moment, a single flare fires off. The tens of thousands of spectators who have been waiting for hours — some of whom have waded into the marsh, some of whom have shelled out the big bucks for a front-row view aboard a chartered boat — erupt in cheers. And the cowboys drive the ponies into the water for their 75-yard swim, which takes some three minutes when conditions are good. Once across the channel, the ponies rest for a short time while being ogled by the masses before being paraded through town to the fairgrounds.
Come Thursday, select foals, typically four to six months old, are auctioned off to qualified bidders. The Saltwater Cowboys present each of the sale ponies, none of whom are halter-broke, for the consideration of the crowd. Most require the manpower of two to three people, but some, like the rare yearling that hits the auction block, need even more hands on deck.
For many, owning a Chincoteague pony is a dream. For a select few — like the recipients of Feather Fund awards, which help children purchase these equines — it becomes a reality. The big draw tends to be the buybacks, those ponies deemed necessary for replenishing the herd who will live out their days on the island. Last year’s record-breaking bid of $25,000 went for one such filly, the daughter of a beloved late stallion. In total, the 2015 auction raised nearly $170,000 to support the fire company.
The rest of the herd swims back to Assateague on Friday, again at slack tide. And just like that, the magic is over. The tourists pack up and check out. Chincoteague’s Main Street becomes quiet once more. And the wild ponies reign over their isle until next year, when the crowds return to watch them make their incredible annual pilgrimage.