Do you have any events or places you’ve dreamed about your whole life? The Chincoteague Pony Swim on the Virginia shore was one of those for me. I started riding horses when I was 7 and have been obsessed with everything about them for the subsequent 25+ years. The Assateague Island beach on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is the only beach I’ve ever actually enjoyed - few people, more horses and mule deer and birds to observe. The Swim is on a Wednesday in July, and I’ve never planned enough in advance to be able to take time off work to go, so when I left my full time job in mid July I realized I definitely had the time to go this year.
The wild ponies of Assateague Island are pretty famous. There are other places along the east coast that has them as well, but this is the only place where the swim is done. Since they are not a native species to the island and there are no natural predators, the ecosystem can’t sustain huge numbers and too many would trample and eat all the vegetation, ultimately starving the ponies and destroying the fragile life of the barrier island. So every year, the Chincoteague Island Volunteer Fire Department rounds up the herd and brings them across from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island to check their health and auction off some of the foals to new homes. The event both helps maintain herd and island health as well as provides money to the CVFD. Starting over the weekend, the “Saltwater Cowboys” round up the herds, vet check them and corral them on the south end of the island. Any ponies that are too old, too young, pregnant or injured are trailered across and the rest partake in the famous swim.
I got to the park and ride on Chincoteague around 6 am Wednesday morning, staying overnight on the Eastern Shore instead of driving down from Baltimore, because I’m not crazy enough to wake up at 2am. The townspeople are accustomed to this event and were great at directing where to go. The bus dropped us off at the main park and from there I walked over to Pony Swim Lane, then waded into the marsh where the ponies come ashore. The marsh gets DEEP and my duck boots hardly helped after I sank several feet into the muck. I made friends with some fellow Marylanders as we waited nearly 4 hours for the ok. To make the swim as safe as possible, they wait for slack tide, the lowest point of the day, which on this day took awhile due to the wind. Finally just before 10am the flare went off and the ponies started their 4-minute journey. Like a thoroughbred race, it’s a quick event. They clambered to shore where they hung out for an hour or so to give them time to rest.
Once the crowd has thinned and the ponies are rested, the Saltwater Cowboys round them up again and take them on a short parade through the town from the beach to the corral at the fairgrounds, where they will stay for a few days during the auction.
It was amazing to see the tenacity of the ponies and the skill of the cowboys during this event. While they are used to seeing people, they are still wild animals. I definitely cried - being able to be a part of something I had dreamed about for so long.