Saltwater Crossing

Back this year, the annual Pony Swim from Assateague to Chincoteague is the stuff of Virginia legend.

For the wild ponies of Assateague Island, the swim across the channel to Chincoteague is an annual rite of passage. A crowd gathers on Pony Swim Lane before sunrise, mucking their way through the water’s edge to stake a spot close to the action. Those who’ve made the trip before wear waders or tall rubber boots, a good slathering of sunscreen, and bug spray. Then they wait, sometimes for hours, for slack tide.

When the ponies charge into the water, the crowd chatters in anticipation. Whinnies and snorts fill the energy-charged air as they make their way across the Assateague Channel, manes flying, heads bobbing.

This year marks the 97th Pony Swim, as much spectacle as necessity. Their Assateague Island habitat can sustain only 150 wild ponies. So, the task of maintaining and, ultimately, thinning the herd falls to Chincoteague’s Volunteer Fire Company, which holds its legendary auction each summer.

Before the swim, vets check every animal. Young mothers, babies, and pregnant mares are trucked across the bridge to bypass the swim. The rest are carefully monitored by local volunteer firemen, known as Saltwater Cowboys. With as many as 200 horses, the five-minute channel swim comes with a whiff of danger—for both man and beast.

The first foal ashore is christened King (or Queen) Neptune and leads the herd onto land. There, horse-mounted Saltwater Cowboys let the animals rest before they are paraded through town. On Pony Swim day, the parade route is packed with onlookers as the ponies make their way from the water to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department Carnival. There, amid the merry-go-rounds, Skee-Ball games, and corn dogs, some will be auctioned and find new homes.

Other ponies will return to the island, designated by the Saltwater Cowboys as “buybacks.” These ponies are “auctioned” to generate donations for local charities before they’re returned to the herd. “Buyback” auctions bring the highest bids with winners earning naming rights for the ponies they sponsor. King or Queen Neptune goes to the winner of a raffle drawing.

Proceeds from the auction and carnival, which runs through July, help fund the fire department crew, who tend the wild ponies year-round. Disastrous blazes in 1920 and 1924 led the town of Chincoteague to update their firefighting equipment, and in 1925 they authorized a fundraising carnival during the annual Pony Swim and auction. Today, the swim alone brings 30,000– 40,000 visitors to the island of 3,000 residents.

For day-visitors, Veterans Memorial Park offers a view of the swim, as do charter boats.

While the swim and auction were made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel Misty of Chincoteague, the origin of the wild ponies roaming Assateague Island is unknown. Some claim they were released by early settlers. But they’re more likely descended from survivors of the shipwrecked Spanish galleon, La Galga, which was lost in 1750. The “beach ponies,” as they are known, bear a close genetic resemblance to the Paso Fino breed that descended from animals brought to the New World by the Spanish. Throughout the centuries, the Assateague ponies interbred with other horses, and in 1994, they were officially recognized as their own unique breed.

THE 2022 PONY SWIM took place on July 27.

The pony auction on July 28 included live and online bidding.

  • Total funds raised in 2021: $416,950.
  • Highest average cost for a pony: $5,705 in 2020.
  • Highest recorded winning bid: $28,250 in 2020.
  • Most ponies sold at auction: 89 in 2002.

Parking on the island is a premium. The Town of Chincoteague provides a free Pony Swim Shuttle service starting at 4:00 a.m. and runs between various locations on the island and Veterans Memorial Park.

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

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