Every horse-mad little girl has read Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel about the “wild” ponies of Chincoteague Island, a tiny spit of land on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. A key part of the story is the “pony swim,” when the herd living on the island is rounded up to swim across the channel to the mainland. The foals are auctioned with the proceeds supporting the village fire department.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that the pony swim and auction are real. Always held on the last Wednesday of July, it’s a unique event, a romantic, exciting spectacle with a little mystery thrown in.
The mystery is where the horses come from. The romantic story is that their ancestors were survivors of a Spanish shipwreck. There’s some evidence to support that. Very early records mention horses on the island. But a massive hurricane that sent water over eight miles inland struck in the early 1700’s. Nothing on the island survived. But horses were back within a couple of decades. It’s most likely that they were put on the island to graze, as were pigs, cows, and sheep. Because there were no fences, some of them wandered off. Also, taxes at the time were levied on how much livestock you owned, so savvy farmers could have slipped their critters onto the island until the tax collector left. When they went to retrieve them, some had vanished into the heavy undergrowth.
There are actually two herds. Assateague Island is partly in Maryland and partly in Virginia. The Maryland herd is completely feral. Aside from receiving contraceptives, they are left to face the elements without care. The Virginia herd, however, is formally owned by Chincoteague’s fire department (which is why they are known as the Chincoteague ponies). They receive regular veterinary checks and are handled by humans who called themselves the Saltwater Cowboys. To keep the herds separate, there’s a fence which straddles the Maryland/Virginia state line. (It’s the only physical barrier between two states, by the way. That’s going to be a Final Jeopardy question some day.)
To watch the swim, get to Chincoteague early. You’ll be jockeying for a spot on the shore with up to 50,000 other spectators. Use the shuttle bus from the school parking lot; there’s nowhere to park near the water. The exact time of the swim varies; it’s at low tide, and the wind and current have to be mild. The Cowboys round up the horses a day or so before the swim and get them settled. Most of the animals have been through this before and are very mellow about it all. They follow the Cowboys’ lead horses into the narrowest part of the channel for the five minute swim. Outriders on mounts swimming alongside the herd keep an eye out for any horses lagging or having trouble. There are boats nearby to move in if a horse needs help, but that’s rarely the case. Even the youngest foal seems to enjoy the adventure.
Once on land, the horses are corralled for an hour to rest while vets check them over. Then there’s a stately parade of horses and foals through the streets of the village to the fairgrounds and the large, shaded field where they spend the night.
The auction is on Thursday morning. Between 50-70 foals are auctioned in order to keep the herd at 150 head. Bidders are checked to make sure they are qualified to care for and train their pony, which go for an average of $1,300. That’s out of the price range for most youngsters who show up with a few hundred dollars they’ve earned in their pockets and a foal-sized halter in their hands. A group called The Feather Fund invites kids to apply for a “pony-ship.” Those who qualify are subsidized by the fund to bid on the pony of their dreams. And when the auctioneer announces that “this colt is a Feather Fund pony,” not too many other people put in bids.
Chincoteague has a lot of beach resort amenities without a lot of the crowds. There are many hotel packages for the Pony Penning. Most have a minimum stay of 3 nights. www.chincoteaguechamber.com and www.chincoteague.com both have listings of accommodations, restaurants, and activities.