By Meg Weaver | June 23, 2014 | Lifestyle
Chincoteague Island celebrates its 89th year of the historic pony swim.
Less than a 200-mile drive southeast of DC, Chincoteague Island—a fishing village of 4,000 residents—is shielded in its eponymous bay from the Atlantic Ocean by Assateague Island. Each year, the 37-mile barrier island of Assateague becomes home to some 65 new foals born to the wild ponies that roam it. And while those ponies serve as a major attraction to the Chincoteague and Assateague visitors, their population requires maintaining. In doing so, a rich annual tradition of swimming them across the bay, then auctioning them off to great fanfare continues.
Famed "Saltwater cowboys”—expert horseman, many of whom are part of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC), who manage and care for the Virginia ponies—round up the herd and lead them across the channel to Chincoteague, where they’re auctioned off. Those two components, the swim and the auction, make up the highly anticipated annual Pony Penning. This year—the 89th—some 40,000 visitors are expected.
The ponies are first herded into the Assateague Channel.
“Pony Penning week is many things to many people,” says Lin Mazza of Miss Molly’s Inn. “Those who come every year are very serious about the ponies, know all their names, who sired them, and who the dam is. [Others] come with their very excited children… to bid at the auction for their favorite foal.”
The Algonquin Gingo-Teague tribe likely first inhabited the island and lent it its name. The British then settled in Chincoteague in 1671. During these early days, penning was the method by which livestock owners would claim, harness, or brand their herds. The first description of Chincoteague pony penning dates to 1835, by which time eating, drinking, and socializing had become aspects of the ritual. After fires in the early 20th century destroyed large sections of the island, villagers organized a carnival during pony penning to raise funds for the CVFC. In 1925, more than 15 colts were sold. By 1947, when Marguerite Henry’s beloved Misty of Chincoteague was published, the fire company had transferred its ponies to the uninhabited Assateague Island, where the government allowed publicly owned herds to graze on the newly established Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Some spectators stand bayside awaiting for the annual event.
The ponies—bay to buckskin, palomino to pinto—have lived in the area for hundreds of years. Some say they are descendants of ponies let loose by mainlanders to avoid taxes. Others believe they are survivors of the Spanish galleon La Galga, which wrecked offshore in 1750. Assateague’s harsh environment and limited diet of saltwater cordgrass give the ponies, a registered breed since 1994, their stockiness and bloated bellies.
Each year, the CVFC renews its permit with the National Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain the ponies. The National Park Service cares for the ponies on Assateague’s Maryland side. To keep their herd at no more than 150, CVFC must auction off foals and yearlings. The Saltwater Cowboys round up the ponies on Assateague the week prior to the swim. Edwin Taylor, who’s been a Saltwater Cowboy for some 30 years, says many of the cowboys are “father-and-son deals.” Be at the beach around 6 am that Monday to watch the Saltwater Cowboys escort the ponies from the north corral along the beach to join those in the south corral.
Ponies swimming from Assateague Island to Chincoteague.
The pony swim, the highlight of the festivities, takes place on Wednesday, at slack tide (30 minutes between high and low tides), when there is little current. Before departing, veterinarians pull from the herd those too young, old, or infirm to make the swim. Denise Bowden, CVFC president, says they’ve “never lost one pony in 88 years.” The first foal to swim ashore is crowned King or Queen Neptune and is given away at a raffle. After resting at the park, the ponies are paraded down Main Street by the Saltwater Cowboys to the carnival grounds, where the auction is held on Thursday at 8 am. Be there early to bid. Last year, 54 ponies were sold, with an average cost of nearly $2,200. More than $110,000 was raised, which supports the fire company and provides year-round veterinary care for the herd and hay during severe weather. On Friday, the ponies swim back to Assateague. Some locals recommend catching this return swim, which is a much more mellow event, without the crowds of the first swim. Lifelong resident Barbara Huffman says, “The swim back is just as, if not more, exciting.”
Most ponies sold become children’s pets, says the Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director Evelyn Shotwell. Bowden says that they halter easily and are good with kids, thanks to their stature.
Mazza says the carnival is “straight out of the ’50s with funnel cake and cotton candy, so typical of Chincoteague.” Clam and oyster fritters are popular offerings. If headed to the pony penning, be ready to get dirty. The Fire Company says pony penning is not a “black-tie affair.” It’s precisely this “marsh mud between one’s toes,” as is said of locals, coupled with the history behind the events, that make pony penning unique.
For visitors seeking to stay the night (or more), Chincoteague offers a variety of accommodations. Miss Molly’s Inn (4141 Main St., Chincoteague Island, Virginia, 757-336-6686), where Marguerite Henry stayed while writing her Newberry Award–winning book, is a sevenroom Victorian B&B on Main Street.
The Refuge Inn (7058 Maddox Blvd., Chincoteague Island, 757-336-5511), just moments from the Assateague Island bridge, offers casual rooms and suites, a pool, and its own Chincoteague ponies.
Campers in tents or vehicles will enjoy Tom’s Cove Park campground (8128 Beebe Road, Chincoteague Island, 757-336-6498), which has wooded and waterfront sites, fishing piers, general store, and club house.
Most dining choices on Chincoteague revolve around seafood: The day’s catch at AJ’s on the Creek (6585 Maddox Blvd., Chincoteague Island, 757-336-5888) is hand-delivered by the owner’s captain husband.
Etta’s Channel Side Restaurant (7452 East Side Road, Chincoteague Island, 757-336-5644) overlooks the Assateague lighthouse and serves founder Etta’s famous crab cakes. And Mister Whippy (6201 Maddox Blvd., Chincoteague Island, 757-336-5122) is a popular spot for an ice cream overdose.
photography by mark wilson/getty images (ponies herded, parade, on-lookerS); Jason O. Watson (cowboy, swim); Chris Hackett/getty images (penned ponies)