pony swim

The famous annual Chincoteague Pony Swim is held each summer in the last week of July. This event, made popular by the book Misty of Chincoteague, draws a large crowd each year. The Chincoteague Ponies, which live feral the rest of the year on the Island of Assateage are rounded up and forced to swim across the channel to Chincoteague where the young foals are auctioned off.

The Pony Swim happens at morning Slack Tide. This is the exact moment when the tide changes direction, the current calms, and the water is at the right depth so that the Ponies and horses don’t hurt their feet and ankles on the channel’s bottom. Because the event is so popular, however, you’ll have to show up hours earlier to claim your viewing spot. Some people lucky enough to hire boats watch from the channel itself. Those not able to watch from the water crowd along the channel shore of Chincoteague’s Memorial Park.

Chincoteague Pony Swim
Early crowds at the channel shore of Chincoteague’s Memorial Park.

We woke up early on Pony Swim morning to claim a spot within the park. Lawns of businesses and residents outside the park had turned into pay-for-Pony-Swim-Parking. For a steep fee we were able to ditch the car just outside Memorial Park and join the crowd streaming towards the shoreline. (Sidenote, this is a no-dogs event, as you wouldn’t want to spook the horses!) The park was already crowded. The morning was muggy, the mosquitoes swarmed, and we added clouds of sunscreen and bug dope to the air as we walked. We passed pop-up booths selling 2016 Pony Swim t-shirts and stuffed animal horses. At the channel’s edge we found people who had arrived even earlier had beach blankets and umbrellas saving their space at the front of the crowd. These people had clearly done this before. We found a spot under a tree, but despite the shade, we were uncomfortably hot and dripping with sweat in no time. It is July in Virginia, after all. I had worn jeans because of the mosquitoes, but I was WAY too hot. I should have worn active wear!

Chincoteague Pony Swim
Pop-up booth selling souvenirs

We waited about three hours for Slack Tide. While we waited we watched the crowd continue to grow. Not only around us in the park, but also boats filled the channel. The Coast Guard patrolled, lining the boats up far enough from the Pony’s swim lane so as not to spook the horses. Kayak tours joined the boats. It was entertaining watching the double-kayaks with their oars going every which way. The Coast Guard practically had to push the inept kayakers into place. As the hours wore on a loudspeaker reminded the crowd periodically to stay hydrated. The more hot and sweaty we got, so did the people around us. Kids started to have meltdowns. This isn’t the best activity for young children, especially boys who have no interest in ponies. Parents became irritable. Covered in sweat, bug dope, and sunscreen, I didn’t blame any of them. I too felt miserably gross.

Chincoteague Pony Swim
Even stuffed animal ponies waited patiently for Slack Tide.

Luckily, the view made up for everything. With the Assateague lighthouse to our left, overlooking a calm channel and the sun beginning to rise, I was happy to be there.

Chincoteague Pony Swim View
The peaceful channel with the Assateague lighthouse at the left and the sun just rising.

Vendors moved through the crowd hawking water bottles and raffle tickets for $1 to win King or Queen Neptune, the first colt to hit this shore after the swim. I had to have a ticket! I could win my very own pony! To win you had to be at the festival grounds at 7:30pm. We had no intention of being there. What would I do with a pony if I won? But for a few hours, I happily had a chance to win a pony!

Chincoteague Pony Swim Raffle Ticket
The book, a postcard, and my raffle ticket to win the first colt to hit the Chincoteague shore at the end of the swim!

The Pony herds of Assateague had been rounded up the day before by the Saltwater Cowboys, retired firemen and friends. We could just see the herd with binoculars. The ponies were anxiously pacing, being held in place until Slack Tide.

Chincoteague Pony Swim
The Ponies wait on Assateague Island for Slack Tide

All the while a news helicopter circled above us. This is the first year the swim was broadcast live at WBOC.com.

Chincoteague Pony Swim Flare
The Coast Guard Red Flare marks Slack Tide and the Ponies begin to run!

Finally the coast guard sent out a red flare, the signal that it was ok for the ponies to swim. The swim was over in 5 minutes, but what a sight it was! Once the cowboys gave the herd the go-ahead, they went- and fast! They surged into the water, swam across the channel, and kept going. Most of the ponies have done this every year so they know the drill. Once on Chincoteague the Saltwater Cowboys let the horses rest and recuperate for about 45 minutes. After the ponies regain their stamina, the Cowboys walk them along the street to the carnival ground pens where they wait for the next day’s auction of the foals.

Chincoteague Pony Swim
We were so far away that we needed binoculars to watch the swim.

After the swim most of the crowd moved to claim spots along the parade route, we instead elected to go home, shower (for the 2nd time that day), and go in search of lunch. With Chincoteague so crowded we decided to drive off the island in search of lunch. We drove back over the bridge to Pokemoke where we found a fast food strip. The rest of the day would be spent strolling Chincoteague’s downtown and visiting Assateague Island.

Let’s Talk!

Have you been to the Chincoteague Pony Swim? Do you want to go? Have you been to a similarly popular animal event somewhere else? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

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  1. A very nice and detailed description of the Pony swim. What is the distance the ponies have to swim? If you would have won and do not show up with your ticket to claim it, who gets the pony?

  2. I have been to Chincoteague for Pony Penning annually since 2012, and even reading your documentary gave me that familiar rush of being with the ponies. My family owns a couple buybacks (The foals auctioned off to go back to the wild and be a part of the herd) and we get to go see them and their foals every year. Our horses are Dreamer’s Gift, Chickadee, Danny’s Girl Splash, Dreamer’s Faith, and Dreamer’s Gift’s 2018 foal who we are still arguing over the final name of.
    Neptune is the first foal ashore from the swim, but the actual raffle drawing isn’t until wednesday night, and they announce it over the loudspeakers at the carnival grounds so everyone knows where to go. We’ve watched the raffle a couple times, and it’s very crowded because everyone wants the best bargain on the strongest foal. Just make sure you have a trailer in case you win, or know someone who can trailer your pony for you!
    So glad you got to go! For anyone who hasn’t gone, this trip has been the opportunity of a lifetime for me, and I thought it was going to be a one- time summer vacation thing. I was so wrong! This vacation could change your life!

  3. for the tickets for king/queen neptune, you must be present to win, or they will pull another ticket.

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