Wild horses running

For the past 89 years, a unique American event has taken place off Virginia’s eastern shore. The Chincoteague Pony Swim was made famous by the classic children’s book Misty of Chincoteague, written by Marguerite Henry in 1947, and a 1961 movie based on the book. The swim now attracts 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a year to watch as the wild ponies of Assateague Island make the swim to Chincoteague, where some of the foals are auctioned off to support the volunteer fire company.

It’s a grand tradition, but one thing about it drives Kendy Allen of the Chincoteague Pony Centre crazy. "Every year, the same television stations come and show the pictures of the pony swim, and then that’s it," she says. "No one asks what they’re like after the swim, after they grow up. One of the best-kept secrets in the horse world is the Chincoteague pony, because people don’t know what they are and what they’re capable of."

Ponies, Past to Present 

The wild ponies of Assateague are believed to be descended from domesticated horses raised by early settlers on the island in the 16th or 17th century or, more likely, to have come from a Spanish galleon that shipwrecked in the area, possibly in the mid-18th century. In the 1920s, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company started holding a pony auction to raise operating funds. Now the department owns a herd and has a federal permit to graze them on the island. The auction also helps limit the number of ponies on Assateague to around 150 (the maximum permitted). 

Denise Bowden, president and spokeswoman of the fire department, says that aside from all the people taking cellphone photos to post to the Internet, the event is pretty much the same as it has always been. "Very little has changed, except that the crowds have gotten bigger and the money has gotten bigger," she says. "This is still the most down-home, family-oriented event that you will ever see anywhere in the whole wide world."

Riders known as "salt water cowboys," who are mostly members of the fire department, round up the herd the weekend before the swim, which takes place the last Wednesday in July before the last Thursday in the month (which falls on July 30 this year). They wait for slack tide — a period with no current, when it’s easiest for the ponies to swim — and escort them across the narrowest part of Assateague Channel, which takes no more than five minutes.

Precautionary measures help to ensure that all the ponies make it safely across the channel. Four pilot boats help lead the way and stay "far enough away so the boats don’t interfere with the swim but close enough to be next to the horses within 15 seconds if there is an emergency," Bowden says. A veterinarian rides in each boat, along with several salt water cowboys. In 89 years, they haven’t lost a pony.

The ponies then rest before being paraded down Main Street to the fairgrounds, where the auction is held the following day.

Taming the Ponies 

That’s what the tourists and TV viewers see. Once a foal goes to his new home, though, what happens next?

Allen is horse manager of the Chincoteague Pony Centre, which offers pony rides and shows that demonstrate what the ponies can do. The center has ponies who are bred from descendants of Misty and some who are "veterans of the swim," as Allen calls them. She says that the first month after purchase is a big adjustment for the foals, and the center offers seminars to help new owners.

Horse jumping over poles

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.

The Romance of the Ponies 

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, and the 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."

Interested in Attending the Pony Swim?

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: