No one is sure exactly where the ponies on Assateague Island come from, but they know where they’re going to be the last Wednesday in July. That’s because, for 91 years—including this morning's swim—volunteers have herded a group the island’s wild horses into a pen. “Saltwater Cowboys,” as volunteers are known as, then lead them into the sea for an eighth of a mile swim across Assateague Channel to nearby Chincoteague Island. Tomorrow this year’s foals will be auctioned off to help keep the population of horses on the island in check.
According to the National Park Service, legend has it that the ponies ended up on Assateague in the 16th century, survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon, though there are no records to confirm that tale. Instead, the NPS writes that it’s more likely that locals on the mainland brought the horses to the island to avoid taxes on livestock.
In any case, over the centuries the feral horses have developed into a hardy, short-legged, shaggy breed, able to survive the heat, mosquitoes, nutritionally poor dune and marsh grasses, not to mention the stormy weather common on the island off the Delmarva Peninsula. They also have learned to adapt to thousands of two-legged tourists who have traveled to catch a glimpse of them.
Though there are some claims that the pony swim first occurred around the time of the Revolutionary War, Jonathan Pitts at The Baltimore Sun writes that the event officially kicked off in 1925. After several fires in the town of Chincoteague, residents came up with the idea of auctioning off their local wild horses to help fund a volunteer fire department.
Today, Pitts reports, the auction has morphed into a three-day festival drawing 40,000 visitors and still benefits the fire department, which owns a herd of the horses on the Virginia side of the 37-mile long barrier island, which is now a National Seashore. The NPS manages the herd on the Maryland side. A grazing permit restricts the fire department’s herd of Chincoteague Ponies, as the horses are locally known, to a sustainable 150.
Enthusiasm for the ponies, which hit the national radar screen in 1947 with the publication of Marguerite Henry’s classic children's novel Misty of Chincoteague, has not died down. CJ Lotz at Garden & Gun Magazine reports that last year’s auction set a record of $170,000 for 61 foals, including one that went for $25,000. This year’s auction, which takes place tomorrow and will include about 60 foals, is expected to rake in an impressive sum.
Chincoteague firefighter Denise Bowden tells Lotz that one colt is especially sought after. “He’s brown on the bottom and white on top,” Bowden says. “He’s got such unique half-and-half markings that people are buzzing over him.”
After the auction, the adult horses will be herded back to their home on Assateague on Friday. About a dozen of the foals will be donated back to the fire department and will return to the herd, though the rest will start new lives on the mainland.