On the third Wednesday of July, and for the past 94 years, the wild Chincoteague Ponies of Assateague Island, whose ancestry on these shores dates back to the late 1700s, take an annual swim across the Assateague Channel to the town of Chincoteague. Here, for one week, they are admired by tens of thousands of spectators from around the world and cared for by locals and volunteers.
The quaint tourist destination on Virginia’s Eastern Shore is a gateway to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, where its pristine beaches serve as a refuge for this admirable herd of wild horses.
It was a fortunate and somewhat coincidental happenchance during a driving tour of the Eastern Seaboard this summer that my wife Lucinda and I found ourselves within driving distance of Chincoteague Island. With hardly a second thought, we decided to make the detour to witness firsthand this truly remarkable equine event.
The Chincoteague pony swim is a weeklong tradition that begins days before the actual swim with the roundup of the Southern Herd of around 150 adult ponies, that along with 60 to 70 foals are driven to the Southern Corral on Assateague Island. The task falls to the Saltwater Cowboys, a group of horseback volunteers who perennially tend to the herds. Next, the Saltwater Cowboys round up the Northern Herd of about 100 adult ponies and their foals and drive them to the island’s Northern Corral.
On Monday, at daybreak, the cowboys move the ponies from the Northern Corral out to the beachfront then south along the Atlantic Ocean, where they join the ponies in the Southern Corral. Here, all ponies are vet-checked and accessible for public viewing.
We arrived the day before the Pony Swim and immediately headed to the Southern Corral where we joined several hundred other visitors to view and photograph the ponies. The ponies’ pinto and paint markings—in patterns designated as overo, tobiano, savino, and tovero—creates an assemblage of some of the most handsome horses of any breed. Seeing so many mild-mannered and colorful ponies and their foals was heartwarming and well worth the effort.
Preparing for the swim the next day, we set out to get advice. Organizers stressed that to physically watch from the shore where the ponies would actually emerge from their swim, one would have to be prepared for an early arrival, a muddy marsh, and the patience of a saint.
Scouting the location, we came across an older couple who run a local auto mechanics shop just across the street from the landing marsh. After giving us great advice on how best to view the ponies, they invited us to park in their back lot the following day—a generous offer, as parking in the area during the event day is virtually impossible and the free pony shuttles are the main mode of transportation to the location.
To prepare for the mud, we headed over to the local ACE Hardware and purchased matching pairs of sturdy muck boots. Knowing we had to get up at the crack of dawn, we decided to have a takeout dinner of steamed clams, shrimp, and blue crabs from the local’s favorite, Gary Howard Seafood. The meal was incredible and retiring early, we were now prepared for the big day.
We came equipped. Camera and backpack in tow. Water, a few snacks, and, of course, the muck boots.
TRUDGING THROUGH THE MUCK
Arriving at 6 a.m., we were surprised to see hundreds of people set in their spots, some in lawn chairs, others standing. Conversations were easily started with some of the locals eager to educate. Several women explained the tradition and what to expect:; We were all waiting for the slack tide.
Slack tide is a period of about 30 minutes between tides, when there is no current. This is the easiest time for the ponies to make the swim. The time of slack tide varies, however, we were informed the swim generally takes place sometime between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., and that we would all be clearly alerted by a plume of red smoke set off by the U.S. Coast Guard to inform the huge crowds and the wranglers that the moment had arrived.
WAITING FOR THE RED SMOKE
Standing in the muck, shoulder-to-shoulder with the hundreds of other eager spectators, the hours passed, and the crowds continued to swell.
Anticipation crackled in the crowd as the Saltwater Cowboys began to appear off in the distance. As people started pointing out the faint images of horses, we could see the ponies and their wranglers assembling across the channel. In a matter of minutes, the telltale plume of vivid red smoke elevated the excitement of the entire crowd.
Watching the ponies enter the water, then swimming toward us was all worth the wait. It is not often, if ever, one sees the bobbing heads of horses plying their way across a sea channel in a calm, albeit determined, manner.
With cameras snapping and cheers erupting, we watched, awestruck, as the magnificent ponies swum the span of the Assateague Channel. One by one, they emerged right in front of us, shaking off the water, and then immediately grazing on the fresh green marsh grass.
This close-up look makes the wait and the mud most worthwhile. Although this particular viewing location is for the hardy and determined, observers can also get a close-up look by reserving space, several months in advance, on a local charter boat. The largest number of viewers, however, assemble to watch from a big screen monitor at a nearby waterfront park.
After the crowds dispersed, the Saltwater Cowboys paraded the ponies down Main Street to the carnival grounds, where locals and visitors alike were able to view them and enjoy the festivities provided by the Chincoteague Fireman’s Carnival.
On Friday, the adult ponies make the return swim to Assateague Island where they will thrive in the wild for another year.
The purpose of the Chincoteague Pony Swim is to move the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island so that the foals can be auctioned. The auction serves to help to control the overall size of the herd and acts as a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which is tasked with providing care for the ponies throughout the year.
For visitors, the weeklong event provides a unique opportunity to see how a community manages its wild population of horses through a celebration among the locals. It is also a beautiful travel destination with history, culture, pristine beaches, and great seafood. This is a rare occurrence and one that satisfies the love of horses while enjoying a true seashore experience.
To plan your trip, visit chincoteague.com.