WTKR produces mini-documentary on 2023 Chincoteague Pony Swim and Penning

September 19, 2023
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2022 Chincoteague Pony Swim
 

Posted at 8:30 AM, Sep 18, 2023 and last updated 9:08 AM, Sep 18, 2023

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Off the coast of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, you’ll find the small, coastal island of Chincoteague.

With gravel made of crushed oyster shells, and a population of just over 3,000, the town of Chincoteague is quaint, quiet, and placid.

Except for one week every year.

“Pony swim is like homecoming and Christmas,” said Evelyn Shotwell, the executive director of Chincoteague’s Chamber of Commerce. “For a lot of people, it’s a childhood dream.”

The internationally recognized Chincoteague Island Pony Swim and Auction occurs annually on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July and is believed to be one of the most unique traditions across the United States.

The pony swim features hundreds of wild ponies swimming from the Eastern Shore island of Assateague to Chincoteague, where they’ll later be sold at auction.

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Launched nearly 100 years ago, the pony swim serves two purposes: controlling the herd size of the wild ponies on Assateague Island, and raising money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD).

“It all started in 1925, when they had a series of fires downtown, and the fire company at that time was just incapable of controlling them,” said Shotwell. “Many of the buildings downtown burned.”

While wild pony auctions had been taking place for years, the CVFD officially combined the event with a carnival in 1925 to raise money for the purchase of fire equipment.

Historical images of the Chincoteague Island Pony Swim
Used with permission Historical images of the Chincoteague Island Pony Swim

Today, the fire department not only organizes the big event, but they manage the wild ponies year-round.

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“Along the way, [the fire department] secured a grazing permit with the Fish and Wildlife Service to graze 150 adult ponies,” said Shotwell. “That’s what the Fish and Wildlife Service has determined is a manageable herd size for the amount of grass there is.”

Eastern Shore native and Virginia State Del. Robert Bloxom says in 2022, the pony swim raised nearly half a million dollars for the fire company. While the entire swim itself lasts just about three minutes, about 50,000 people flock to the island for the week-long event.

“We’re at maximum capacity this week,” said Shotwell with a chuckle. “Economically, it’s our busiest week of the year. Some of the small businesses will make more money this week than they probably do the whole first quarter.”

And while the famous swim occurs on Wednesday, the entire event kicks off a few days earlier with the opening of the Chincoteague Carnival Fairgrounds.

“We’ve had so many people in this week, you know, say this is on [their] bucket list.. and [they’re] finally here,” added Shotwell.

Leading up to the swim, the ponies are corralled on the island of Assateague. The feral ponies roam the remote island of Assateague all year and are encased in Assateague State Park days before the swim.

This is where you’ll find thousands of visitors. Many are pre-selecting the ponies they’ll bid on at auction, while others have made the event a yearly ritual and just come out to watch.

“We started to come in 1995,” said Darby Callahan, who has made the pony swim a ritual for her and her family. They come down from Westchester County, just outside of New York City — a six or seven-hour drive.

Callahan, like many others, became fascinated with the island of Chincoteague after reading the famous six-volume book series, Misty of Chincoteague.

Published in 1947, Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague follows two Chincoteague siblings who eventually acquire a wild foal named Misty. Selling over 5 million copies nationwide, the novel is partially credited with the event’s popularity.

“We saw the swim, we went to the auction, and I think they had one pony that you could bid on and then donate back to the herd,” said Callahan. “So not knowing what I was doing, I bid $800 and got this little pony who we called Island Dream because it was a dream to come to Chincoteague because I read Misty of Chincoteague as a kid. We donated her back and then every year we would come and we would see her.”

Callahan has since returned every year and eventually bought Island Dream’s baby. That pony, named Riddle Me This, now lives with the Callahan family back in New York.

“She’s part of our family,” added Callahan.

While the pony swim is a significant event for people like Darby, the residents of Chincoteague treat the event like a massive homecoming.

“Anybody that grew up on Chincoteague tries to make it back for pony penning,” says Bloxom. “It’s a big deal.”

Come Wednesday morning, the ponies are taken from their corral and prepared for the big swim.

Led by a unique group of wranglers coined The Saltwater Cowboys, the ponies are held on Assateague Island until the time is just right.

“What they’re waiting for is dead slack time,” said Bloxom. “So it’s either high or low tide depending on the year, and they will swim at slack low tide when there’s no movement. Because with the young horses, you’ve got to make sure that they have the easiest path to crawl.”

The Saltwater Cowboys use whips and vocal cues to coerce them in the right direction, but they don’t whip the horses, just the water around them. And to ensure the ponies get across the Assateague Channel safely, there are spotters that ride alongside them in boats.

“There are four boats that help the ponies get across the channel safely,” said Arthur Leonard, the mayor of Chincoteague. “If we notice if there’s one who’s struggling or having trouble, the pony patrol will sweep in, grab the pony, and take it across. So we’ve never lost a pony in 98 years of doing the pony swim.”

But the swim is only half the journey. Once the ponies make it to Chincoteague, they’ll be led by the Saltwater Cowboys to the carnival fairgrounds. After an examination by veterinarians, they’ll be sold at auction.

Many of these Assateague ponies will never leave the Eastern Shore. Often, locals purchase ponies and give them back to the land.

“We have one Chincoteague buy-back pony,” said Brooke Macintosh, a lifelong Chincoteague resident. “We named her Miss Admiral Halsey in memory of my grandfather who was in WWII.”

The Chincoteague Island Pony Swim
Courtesy Brooke Macintosh The Chincoteague Island Pony Swim

Other ponies will fulfill lifelong dreams and travel miles to become members of new families.

“Even all these years later, I still say the one thing you always wanted when you were like 10, and your parents gave you Misty of Chincoteague for Christmas one year, and you read the story, and you’re always wanting to come,” said Callahan. “If you did nothing else in your life, you got a Chincoteague pony.”

A few more days of carnival later and the yearly event comes to a close.

“It taxes us you,” said Shotwell. “We’re all tired by the time Saturday rolls around and the end of the carnival.”

And the small island of Chincoteague returns to its quiet nature… until next year.

The digital documentary was filmed and edited by News 3 photojournalist Lydia Johnson.

You can find more information about the event at the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce website.

Copyright 2023 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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