Pony Swim on Chincoteague Island - Travel

Pony Swim on Chincoteague Island   by Sam Serio

in Travel    (submitted 2009-06-19)

Pony Swim on Chincoteague Island

If you go to Chincoteague Island during the last week of July, you're probably there for the Pony Penning and Auction, like approximately 50,000 other visitors. You'll be in for an exciting time, but what you won't see is the sort of round-up which takes place on Federal grazing lands in the Western United States. There'll be no helicopters herding exhausted mustangs into waiting trucks from far above

The 150 ponies of the Chincoteague Island herd are such old hands at being rounded up (they are gathered twice a year for veterinary checkups) that on the Wednesday of the annual four hundred yard Chincoteague Pony Swim from Assateague Island to the Firemen's Carnival grounds, most of them take the exercise "in stride."

The Chincoteague Island Pony Swim has been taking place since 1925, when the first was held to raise funds for the Chincoteague Island Fire Department. Two disastrous fires in the preceding five years had destroyed much of Chincoteague Island's business district, and the Fire Department desperately needed better equipment. They held a Firemen's Carnival that July, featuring the first Pony Swim and Auction. Fifteen pony foals were sold.

Word of the Pony Swim soon reached Virginia's Eastern Shore, and by 1947, when Marguerite Henry published her classic children's book Misty of Chincoteague, the Fire Department had taken ownership of the wild Chincoteague ponies at the southern end of Assateague Island. They assumed responsibility for the ponies' well-being, and still make sure that only the adults and foals strong enough to manage the Chincoteague Pony Swim are herded across the shallows each year.

One condition which can affect the Chincoteague Island mares with foals is hypocalcemia. Hypocalcemia causes mares which are nursing older foals to lose muscular control, and in hot weather the condition is aggravated. It's easily preventable, and in some years up to twelve mares have been treated for it and made the Chincoteague Island Pony Swim in perfect health.

Before every Pony Swim the herd is examined by a veterinarian so that both mares in the late stages of pregnancy and those with very young foals are trailered to the carnival grounds. The rest of the herd is rounded up by Chincoteague Island's famous Salt Water Cowboys, who must time their efforts so that the Chincoteague Pony Swim occurs when the tide is lowest.

Occasionally a foal will become separated from its mother during the Chincoteague Pony Swim, but that's a rare occurrence and any stragglers are picked up by patrolling boats. When the entire herd has made it safely to shore, the Salt Water Cowboys drive them to corrals on the Carnival grounds to be examined once more before the next day's auction.

The second leg of the Chincoteague Pony Swim occurs on Friday, when the Salt Water Cowboys herd the stallions and mares whose foals were sold back across the channel to their home on Assateague. Mares with foals too young for the auction are kept on Chincoteague until the fall. In October the Salt Water Cowboys return them to Assateague during the fall roundup when the entire herd receives pre-winter veterinary treatment.

The Chincoteague Pony Swim and Pony Penning are at the heart of life on Chincoteague Island, and those small horses carry that weight with remarkable willingness!