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