by Laura Rodley
On a tiny island off mainland Virginia, grown-up’s childhood dreams come true, and children start their own dreams. Wild ponies live on Assateague Island, separated from Chincoteague Island, Virginia, by Assateague Channel. Every year, Saltwater Cowboys, riders hailing from Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania as well as members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department entrusted with the ponies’ care, round up and swim the ponies across the channel, a feat made famous in Marguerite Henry’s book “Misty of Chincoteague” in 1947. July 24 was the 88th annual Chincoteague’s Pony Swim.
Foals are auctioned on Thursday, proceeds benefiting the fire department and care of the 160 ponies consisting of two herds living on the north and south of Assateague.
No one knows how the ponies first arrived there. According to legend, Spanish Galleons sank off shore, and only the ponies survived.
This legend of survival and Misty, a tiny palomino with side markings resembling the United States map as the country emerged from the Great Depression caught the hearts of the nation’s readers. A movie version followed in 1961 using Chincoteague islanders as extras.
Chincoteague’s census is 3,500. During Pony Penning, the last week of July, crowds reach 20,000 to 35,000 clamoring to view the swim and purchase a piece of the legend.
“I believe they descended from there (Spain). I also know that in the 1600s and early 1700s people kept livestock over there on the island,” said Denise Bowden, Chincoteague native daughter, volunteer fire department vice president, referring to an Assateague village that existed until the 1900s.
If the legend is true, the galleons may have encountered storms such as last winter’s Northeasters that blasted the islands. Storms came in and flooded the marsh areas where the ponies eat, said Bowden. Carting 50 to 60 square bales, water, filling 500 gallon troughs, vet bills and feed spiked costs to $30,000, rather than their usual $20,000. Expenses are paid for from the yearly auction. Last year’s auction proceeds totaled $97,000. If it’s not a harsh winter, they don’t have to take anything over.
Last October, Hurricane Sandy caused considerable island damage.
Firefighters and tourists found 53 foals that had been born after Saltwater Cowboys round up herds June 20 and 21. Mist obscured the beach on July 23 as cowboys drove the northern herd down hard sand and surf to meet their neighbors in a southern viewing corral. Ponies are named, and distinct patterns documented.
On July 24, beginning at 6 a.m., crowds tread through marsh water by Pony Penning Lane, getting mucky, severely sunburned, and bitten waiting for the ponies to cross Assateague. The ponies then swim across during slack tide a distance of 70 yards they sometimes swim on their own. A severe, drenching thunderstorm greeted the ponies at the water’s edge. At 11 a.m. red smoke flares announced the swim’s start.
The first foal touching land is dubbed King or Queen Neptune and is raffled off.
This year’s highest bid was a “Buy Back” pony at $12,000; the lowest $650. “Buy Backs” are released back into the herd. Owners name them, and receive ownership certificates. This year, there were 11 Buy Backs, plus one donation, replacing 14 ponies that died.
When sisters Anna and Amanda Beer of Clarkson, MI, age 11 and 12 respectively, spotted their previously purchased “Buy Back” in the holding corral, they yelled his name, “Dreamer.” Their grandmother, Janey Beer, of Clarkston, purchased hers this year for $5,000. “That’s their dream. This is my dream since I was eight years old,” she said.
Firefighters’ top priority is the ponies. “We’re carrying on a tradition you don’t see anywhere else in the whole wide world. They put Chincoteague on the map. Somebody could offer me one million dollars to take a trip around the world, I’d tell him to keep it, I want to be right here Pony Penning week,” said Bowden.
by Laura Rodley