The 97-year tradition of Chincoteague Pony Swim returns


CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — Brandy Farrell made it all the way from Canada for the Chincoteague Pony Swim.

Farrell, 55, an accountant from Hamilton, Ont., grew up around horses. “I fell in love with the Misty of Chincoteague books as a kid and it took me to a dream world,” she said.

Attending the pony swim was on Farrell’s wish list, which could mean more to her than the typical 50s: Farrell has leukemia and has been in remission for 12 years after a bone marrow transplant in 2009.

And although she’s seen photos of the Chincoteague ponies, she’s wanted to see the legendary horses in person for over 20 years. She camped out on Pony Swim Lane at 5:30 a.m. with her husband Doug to get a good vantage point.

Pony swimming returned Wednesday morning for the first time since the pandemic. Moving the ponies through the Assateague Channel is a 97-year tradition with cheering onlookers, many of whom joined the Farrells hours earlier to claim the top spots.

Shortly after 9 a.m., a red-orange flare erupted from a Coast Guard boat, signaling the group of riders known as the Saltwater Cowboys that it was time to bring the ponies from the other side of the canal.

The ponies didn’t want to be rushed, however, and stopped to nibble on grass in the shallow water at the start of their journey.

The cowboys, most of whom are members of the volunteer fire department which organizes the event, rode horses to the edges of the deep water of the canal to keep the ponies in check. The event takes place during slack tide, a period between tides when there is no current.

Onlookers lifted their phones and lifted the children onto their shoulders so they could watch.

The ponies were submerged up to their necks, the water boiling as they crossed the canal. It was over in four and a half minutes.

The event and the festivities weren’t just for a good show. The swim raises money to buy equipment for firefighters, pay the annual veterinary bill of about $45,000 for ponies and fund eight scholarships for Chincoteague high school students, said Denise Bowden, door -word of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

After the swim, approximately 65 foals will be auctioned off. Reducing the horse population is important because firefighters have reached an agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to keep only 150 ponies on Assateague, Bowden said.

During the pandemic, the foal auction took place online. This year it’s online and live. The first foal to land – a black and white colt this year – is not sold. Instead, he was christened King Neptune and will be raffled off.

Evelyn Shotwell, director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, which helps advertise swimming, said it dates back to 1925 and started with just a handful of people.

“An event that has this longevity speaks for itself,” Shotwell said.

Then, in 1947, “Misty of Chincoteague”, a children’s book by Marguerite Henry, was published, followed by a 1961 film and several other books that raised the profile of the island’s ponies.

There are several legends about the arrival of ponies in Assateague.

Shotwell said one version is that they ran aground from a Spanish shipwreck. Another is that they were left on Assateague by farmers who used the island as a natural fence to contain the ponies. Both stories are probably true, she says.

Ethan Haga of Raleigh, North Carolina was one of Misty’s youngest fans who arrived hours earlier. He came with his parents, his brother and his grandmother. The trip was his birthday present – he will be 10 in a few weeks.

Her mother, Jen Haga, said she went pony swimming in 1987 with her mother and great-grandmother and also loved Misty’s books.

Before the event, Ethan struggled to stay awake, but afterwards he said, “I thought it was cool how fast they could swim.” He wants to come back next year.

Some of the attendees said they were newbies, but Daniel Horseman, who lives in Delaware, came to all 50 except for the eight he lived in Boston. He grew up on a horse farm and read Misty’s books a few times. In 2015 he bought a Chincoteague pony at auction – the cheapest and second-to-last across the Channel – for $675. He still has it.

He keeps coming back because “it’s fun and you get attached to the horses”.

After the event, Farrell was still impressed. When she finally saw the ponies, she said they were so beautiful they made her cry.

“I loved it,” she said, sniffling. “For me, there is nothing more beautiful than a foal.”

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