Virginia July 03, 2017
The Magical Annual Event That’s So Perfectly Virginia
Chincoteague Island, in addition to its gorgeous natural splendor and
inviting coastal life, is home to the world-famous annual Pony Swim. These beloved ponies make the journey from Assateague to Chincoteague each year, with the help of the specially-trained Saltwater Cowboys. The swim itself is scheduled for Wednesday, July 26th, although there will be plenty of festivities all week long to honor this incredible tradition nearly 100 years in the making. For anyone who remembers reading Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, this event is truly a storybook come to life:
Each year, tens of thousands of visitors from around the globe head to the scenic island of Chincoteague to partake in a magical tradition: the Pony Swim.
For the 92nd year, the Pony Swim will take place on July 26th between 6:00 AM and 8:00 AM. A bit ahead of schedule, this event is a not-to-be missed hallmark of the summer. Be sure to mark your calendars and arrange for travel as soon as possible.
The purpose of this intriguing event is to move the wild ponies from Assateague to Chincoteague where the foals can be auctioned on the following day.
The auction ensures that the herd’s size is controlled while also raising money for the local fire department. Moreover, the department reserves a portion of the proceeds to provide care for the ponies throughout the rest of the year.
The first Pony Swim and Auction was hosted by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company in 1925.
After fires had scorched the island in the 1920s, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was in need of updated equipment. To raise money, the company hosted both a carnival and pony auction. The event was an instant hit and, after gaining national interest, became an annual event. Just 12 years later, the event attracted as many as 25,000 spectators.
For most of the year, these special animals live on Assateague Island in two herds which are separated by the Virginia-Maryland line.
The ponies, which typically measure between 12 and 14 hands, are renowned for their striking appearance and gentle personalities. (Though visitors are asked to admire the animals from a distance!) Many believe they are descendants of the horses which survived a Spanish galleon wreck in the 1700s. Over the past centuries, the horses have adapted to the limited diet of salt water cord grass. Because this grass has limited nutrition, the ponies spend almost the entire day eating.
The ponies are managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which maintains the herd size in Virginia to about 150 adult ponies.
While the ponies are technically wild, they receive plenty of love and care. When food is especially scarce during the winter, the fire department provides hay and other supplements. Veterinary care is provided throughout the year and just before the swim, all of the ponies receive a check-up to ensure the swim is feasible.
The week-long even begins on Saturday, when the Saltwater Cowboys begin rounding up the herds on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island.
Approximately 70 riders from all over the country herd the ponies on horseback. It's a process that takes about two days to complete, allowing the ponies plenty of rest before the swim.
On the day of the big swim, the ponies are again herded to the swim site, where the real magic begins.
The vision of so many gorgeous ponies swimming across the water is a breathtaking site. The swim takes less than fifteen minutes, yet it's a vision that seems suspended in time.
So what’s the best way to experience this magical pony swim on Wednesday? Preparation is key!
The swim takes place early in the morning to ensure that the ponies enter the water during "slack tide," when there is essentially no current in the Assateague Channel. As early as 4:00 AM, the town of Chincoteague provides free shuttle services to various locations around the island. The main viewing area is Veterans Memorial Park, located at 7427 Memorial Park Drive, with a large screen provided to see up-close footage of the swim.
After the big event, the ponies rest up before the festive pony parade.
After 45 minutes of much-needed rest, the ponies are shown off by the Salt Water Cowboys, who parade them down Main Street to the carnival grounds. This is the site of the pony auction.
The Pony Auction is an exciting event on Thursday that also gives back to the community in a wonderful way.
Each year, proceeds from one of the foals are donated directly to a regional charity. In the past, such charities have included Alzheimer’s Adult Care, Wounded Warriors, and Hospice. The Feather Fund is another wonderful charity that ensures that deserving children have enough funds to bid on the ponies.
By Friday morning, the ponies are rounded up and prepped to make the swim back to Assateague Island, where they'll remain for the rest of the year.
But the festivities don't end there! At 11:00, the beloved Misty of Chincoteague will be shown at the Island Theatre. That evening, visitors can enjoy the Chincoteague Fireman's Carnival, which will also take place at the fairgrounds.
For incredible footage of the Annual Pony Swim & Auction, as well as a detailed account from some of the Saltwater Cowboys, watch the brief video below courtesy of National Geographic:
Have you witnessed the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim? If so, please share your memories and experiences with us. For a detailed guide of the week as well as further information on accommodations and the schedule, visit the official Chincoteague Island website