"About the Chincoteague Pony Swim"
The famous tradition of "Pony Penning" holiday began back in 1925- running 93 years as of 2018- and will begin again every "last Wednesday" of July for thousands to enjoy. This event also helps to raise money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. The event was later popularized by the children's book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, (published in 1947). The event has grown now- usually drawing from 40,000 to 50,000 spectators.
What happens in the Pony Penning? There's a reason why locals call this event, "Chincoteague Christmas"- the excitement that you can just feel around the island is unreal. You'll see a slow, peaceful, small vacation town turn into a busy week. But this isn't just a 1-day event, there are week-long events that go on during the last week (Saturday-Saturday) in July.
To begin the Pony Penning events you need to know a few key pieces of
background. There are two herds on the Virginia side of Assateague Island
that need to be rounded up. There is the northern herd (closer to Maryland
side) and the southern herd (closer to our access of the beach). The two
states of Virginia and Maryland share the entire Island of Assateague, and a
fence separates the herd. The National Park Service manages the
7 Days of Pony Penning Events-
What occurs during each day?
1. The first day of events is the kickoff- usually on a Saturday and will
include the first herd, which is the Southern Herd Roundup (usually occurring
in the afternoon). This is when the Chincoteague Saltwater Cowboys (also
our Volunteer Fireman) will herd up about 40-60 ponies, in which they own,
each year to the Southern Corral Pen. This pen is located on the right side of
the road on your way to the beach on the Chincoteague National Wildlife
Refuge where the ponies live in their natural habitat of salt water,
marshy grasses, and a maritime forest. The public may gather to witness
this special event.
2. The following day, usually a Sunday, approximately the second herd of 100-150 wild ponies will be herded to the North Coral. This section of Assateague is not accessible to the public. However, you can reserve tickets or seats on a boat tour to reserve tickets for special bus tours which are available through special contracting at the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. Phone #757-336-6161
3. The third day (Monday) is the "Magical" Beach Walk as I like to call it. The Beach Walk event is where the ponies of the 2nd herd (Northern Herd) leave the north corral escorted by the Saltwater Cowboys at 6am when the sun is rising over the horizon of the beach. They are to be lead to the location of the Southern Corral.
4. Tuesday (the day before the Pony Swim) Veterinarians check and care for the ponies as they do a couple times a year. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company's Carnival will be open to the public on Chincoteague Island to gear up for the exciting day to come.
5. Wednesday (the last Wednesday of every July) is the BIG DAY of the Pony Swim. The Pony Swim is when the herd swims from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. They swim as 1 herd across the channel at slack tide- when the tide is of still water at the turn of the lowest tide. Thus, slack tide is essentially the perfect & safest time to swim sometime between 7a.m.-1p.m. This Pony Swim occurs at Memorial Park on Chincoteague where there is no charge to stand and watch. There will be thousands of people, and a big televised screen is the newest feature. Seek information about Handicap and basic Transportation/Parking at the Chamber of Commerce #757-336-6161. An interesting fact: The first foal to swim to Chincoteague will be named King or Queen Neptune and will be given away in a raffle drawing at the carnival grounds later in the day. You must be present to win. The ponies rest for about 45 minutes after swimming and then are PARADED to the carnival grounds on Main Street. Here at home, we all call Pony Penning our "Chincoteague Christmas".
A Note From the Locals: We all love our home, we love our wild ponies, and we love those who constantly care for them. This is a special time of year, and we tell all those who come for the event, that it is something so spectacular you'll want to cross it off your bucket list. We also recommend the best way to witness this event is by boat tour, those are like front row seats.
6. The annual auction of ponies will commence on the following day, Thursday at the carnival grounds. Several ponies are auctioned off to good homes and some are even considered buybacks- ponies that are returned to wild, but the owner buys the right to name them (a donation).
7. Friday is considered the Swim Back (essentially the same as the Pony Swim) where the ponies swim back home to Assateague where they will live for another year to come.
8. Saturday will be the end of the week for the Pony Penning events. This night is also the last night of the Fireman's Carnival. You will be able to take back home some pretty unforgettable memories.
Where did the wild ponies originate?
Have you ever wondered how the ponies came to Assateague Island? There are several theories... but the one that has always made the most sense is of a historically document about shipwrecks that have occurred off of the coast of Assateague Island. One legend in particular tells how one of these shipwrecks involved a Spanish galleon ship carrying horses. The galleon is said to have wrecked off dur to a storm off the coast of Assateague Island back in the 1700's and some of the horses were able to swim to shore.
Continuing this legend, with more historical evidence, we have come to believe that the "Chincoteague Ponies" are descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague Island by old Eastern Shore farmers when crop damage led laws that require fencing and taxes on livestock. Now, our modern ponies are descendants of those domestic horses have adapted to their environment.
Once the wildlife refuge was established in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchased the ponies and continue to own them and care for them to this day. The Firemen are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies ONLY on refuge land through a Special Use Permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
What made Pony Penning in Chincoteague Island world famous?
The children's novel, "Misty of Chincoteague" was written by Marguerite Henry in the year 1947. Misty was inspired by a real pony by who was bought and domesticated in 1946, on Chincoteague Island at the Beebe Ranch.
The children's story truly took off as one of the most popular children's books of it's time which has since then, helped shape the Pony Swim and Chincoteague into the famous things that they are today.
By: Alyssa Hickman
June 20, 2018