Each July, firefighters on Chincoteague Island off Virginia’s coast trade their helmets for ball caps and cowboy hats when they become “saltwater cowboys.”
Chincoteague Pony Roundup
They’re herding wild ponies for the 95th annual Chincoteague Pony Roundup, Swim and Auction, which has kept the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company running since 1925.
The spectacle brings some 40,000 onlookers and horse buyers to Chincoteague Island, a resort island on Virginia’s eastern seaboard that is home to 3,000 residents.
“It’s a bucket list event for many,” said Chincoteague resident Evelyn Shotwell. “The excitement reverberates through the crowd. It is quite spectacular and touching.”
Chincoteague ponies stand about 54 inches high and have shaggy hair. Some are a solid brown or cream, while others are speckled in a pinto pattern. They are hardy, stubby animals, able to subsist on marsh grass and freshwater ponds.
For centuries, the ponies have been roaming around the coastal wetlands of Assateague Island, a 37-mile-long barrier island off the shores of Chincoteague Island on the eastern coast of the United States.
After disastrous fires decimated downtown Chincoteague Island in the 1920s, the island’s Volunteer Fire Company needed to raise money for better equipment.
They came upon the idea of a pony swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, followed by an auction as the perfect fundraiser. The auction helps to keep the herd’s population at a manageable level and protects their environment.
The event was an immediate success, and the fire department eventually took ownership of the herd.
These days, the herd is carefully managed and cared for by the Saltwater Cowboys. Each July, they round up the entire herd, including the foals. The herd swims to Chincoteague Island and most of the foals are auctioned.
To ensure the herd’s sustainability, a few select foals are designated as ‘buybacks’. A buyback pony is auctioned, then donated back to the Fire Company and returned to Assateague Island to replenish the herd.
The Story of Misty
The fundraiser got a boost in the 1940s when acclaimed author Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague, a beloved children’s novel.
It tells the story of two orphans, their ranching grandparents and two wild ponies named Phantom and Misty (Phantom’s foal).
The book was a hit and readers flocked to the annual pony roundup. Crowds picked up further when the movie Misty, based on the story, was released in 1961.
The book remains popular with horse lovers of all ages who travel to Chincoteague to see the wild ponies on Assateague Island, the statue of Misty in town and even Misty’s taxidermy remains in the Museum of Chincoteague Island.
The Chincoteague Pony Roundup
The live ponies are Chincoteague’s main attraction, with the herding, swim and auction lasting for a full week in July. The excitement begins with the round-up of the entire herd from the south and north ends of Assateague Island to a central area where they are later examined by vets.
The Pony Swim
Next comes the big pony swim, drawing hundreds of onlookers to Chincoteague’s shores as more than 150 ponies and their foals step from Assateague Island into the sea.
Saltwater cowboys guide the ponies into the water for the swim to Chincoteague beach. The ponies, which weigh around 850 pounds, create quite a stir churning the water as the crowd cheers.
Firefighters and other cowboys ride alongside, guiding the animals through the currents. After a sometimes-arduous swim, the ponies rest a good while before heading into town for a parade to the carnival grounds.
Christmas in July in Chincoteague
Locals and visitors in shorts and shirts stand in front lawns along white picket fences to cheer the ponies along.
Islanders refer to the weeklong celebration as Homecoming or Christmas in July, Shotwell said. “Islanders who moved elsewhere return to celebrate the island tradition, sharing tales of past Pony Swims over a meal or backyard firepit. The ponies are quite loved and famous.”
The most handsome specimens are depicted on shirts, calendars, and other souvenirs. There’s even a Chincoteague Pony Drill Team. Fans have names for some ponies and point out their features to friends as the parade passes by.
Auctioning Chincoteague Ponies
Hundreds of buyers and spectators attend the morning auction the following day, sitting on bleachers under the bright, hot sun. About 50 foals and a couple of yearlings are individually guided around the ring and an auctioneer rattles off numbers as the price rises.
The average cost of a Chincoteague pony in 2019 was $4,767, a record high. Most are purchased as pets or 4H projects and are a big commitment, living for about 30 years.
The money raised keeps the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department running and helps the saltwater cowboys care for the herd.
On the following day, the adult ponies swim back to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the various groups return to their normal grazing areas.
“It’s truly a magical week,” Shotwell said.
If You Go
Author Bio: Maribeth Mellin is a freelance travel journalist whose articles and photos have appeared in dozens of publications. She’s the author of several books on Mexico, including the award-winning “Traveler’s Mexico Companion.”