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There's a learning curve for both the buyers and the ponies. "You have to realize the only water they've drunk has been from a stream or a pond. You should put your water bucket on the ground, rather than hanging it up in the stall, so it's down where they're used to," she says. "They have no idea what grain is — you have to introduce it gradually."
The foals also need to get used to being around people. Allen tells new owners to "go in the stall 10 times a day and sit on a stool so you don't seem so big and talk to [the foal]."
This isn't a job for a novice — a wild Chincoteague foal shouldn't be anyone's first horse — but she says that if they're raised right, you'll never know they were born wild, and they're well worth the effort.
"They're very intelligent, very willing to please, and they love kids," she says. "We like to say that they have a horse-sized brain in a large pony body."
They're also incredibly versatile: She has had ponies who have done everything from dressage to barrel racing. One pony named Chincoteague Cowboy has participated in events on the national level. "He's 14 hands and can jump 4 feet and has been known to beat the Thoroughbreds and the Warmbloods," Allen says.
Some foals have a different experience, though: Every year, a few are returned to the island, along with the adult ponies, the day after the auction.
"We have a buyback program," Bowden explains."The pony committee will select maybe five or six foals that we would like to keep to help with the replenishment of the herd.When you bid on [a pony designated as a buyback foal], you're basically making a big donation to the fire company, andthe pony will live out its natural life on Assateague, never to be sold again."
Bowden says that between the auction and the associated carnival, the pony swim accounts for about 25 percent of the fire department's budget, but the event is definitely not only about the money.
"A couple years ago, we had a little girl who had 300 bucks she had saved up, and 300 bucks won't buy you a pony these days," she says. The girl kept getting outbid, and finally the organizers found out what was going on and told the auctioneer.
"He brought out a pony, and he said, 'I'm going to start this bidding at $300.' She put up her hand, and he said 'Sold!'" Bowden says. "We probably could have gotten $2,000 or $3,000 for that pony, but it's not all about the money. It's the fairy tale. You will see little kids' dreams come true."
The Chincoteague Pony Swim is very popular, so if you want to join in the fun, start planning your trip in winter the year before. (By February, some accommodations may already be fully booked.)
To learn more about Chincoteague and the pony swim:
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