It was another banner year for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC). Last year they sold out of 7,000 raffle tickets. This year they printed an extra 500 and they sold out again as tourists and islanders alike bought for the chance to win the first foal that sets its foot on shore after swimming Assateague Channel in Virginia during the 91st annual Pony Swim.
On this pony-penning day, the island’s usual population of 3,500 swelled to approximately 40,000. Annapolis Maryland’s Maria Listman won. “I’ve been coming to the island for 30 years,” she said. The crowd breathed a collective sigh at having lost, and another sigh of joy for her win, like being present at a huge birthday party; that’s what the ponies represent, a chance to own tangible joy and the culmination of dreams.
The Pony Swim and subsequent foal auction have helped support the CVFC since 1925. In turn, CVFC members take care of the ponies that live on Assateague Island, by bringing bales of hay and water when there is lots of ice or snow and providing veterinary care. Fifty-seven foals were sold at the auction on Thursday, a day after they swam 70 yards across Assateague Channel to Chincoteague at slack tide. Proceeds are used to help fund CVFC and take care of the ponies, plus keeps the herd numbers down to the requisite 150.
“It was a real good winter; every five years or so, it works out. It’s a nice good crop,” said Denise Bowden, 26 year active CVFC member. The southern herd had been herded into the brand new southern corral on Saturday. Early Monday morning, the Saltwater Cowboys drove the northern herd down Assateague beach, viewed by thousands clicking cameras.
This year three fewer Saltwater Cowboys joined in, as honorary fire department member Gary Vaughn Rayne Sr., 65, of Willards, VA passed away. Two active CVFC members, Bryce Hurry, 20, of Clements, VA and Justin Lewis, 26, of Snow Hill, VA died from injuries sustained in two separate automobile accidents.
The Saltwater Cowboys have a tradition spanning generations of herding the legendary ponies and, therefore, a very tight bond. The three were honored during pony penning. The fire department has 35 active members, 60 life members and 50 honorary members.
The new corral was built collaboratively by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the CVFC, and the volunteer organization Team Rubicon. “The south corral kept getting washed out,” said Bowden. Minimal shade was provided by two deciduous trees and beige canvas tarps where pine trees had already been cut down due to an infestation of southern pine bark beetles.
Very pregnant mares and foals were trucked over to the Carnival Grounds on Chincoteague. Pony penning veteran, Bowden said, “This year’s swim was one of the smoothest and easy-going pony pennings we’ve seen in a long time.”
Author Marguerite Henry spotlighted the Pony Swim and island life in her iconic children’s fiction book Misty of Chincoteague, published in 1947. She bought Misty, a foal born on Chincoteague’s Beebe Ranch, and brought her home to Wayne, IL. The movie adaptation of Misty was filmed in 1961. For its premiere, Misty was paraded down the street to have her hoof-prints imbedded in cement in front of the Island Theater, which airs Misty during pony penning week.
The ponies’ lineage is closely chronicled, and any bearing markings similar to Misty’s markings is especially prized. On auction day, July 28, people bought seven buyback foals that had requisite characteristics that were returned to swim back to Assateague to live with the herd for the rest of their lives. The first buyback pony sold for $9,000. The CVFC donated the proceeds of $8,500 from the sale of another foal to Special Olympics.