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  • Writer's picturePamela Guffey

Exploring the Beauty of the USA: Chincoteague

This week in our journey to discover the Beauty of the USA, we travel not only to beautiful coastal destination but a much loved and popular annual event, the pony swim at Chincoteague Island.

Two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. For many generations, visitors have flocked to the Virginia side the last week of July to take part in festivities which are centered around the swim and auction of the ponies.


Since the earliest settlers arrived on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, the jagged coastline and its hidden sandbars have claimed many ships bound for the ports laden with livestock, supplies, merchandise and other goods.

A Spanish galleon is suspected to have met its fate off the coast near the Virginia/Maryland border, leaving behind a herd of ponies that made its way to nearby Assateague Island and became inhabitants there. These ponies continued to grow, thrive and over time develop into an abundant population.

As early as the 1700's, livestock owners held a yearly pony penning to claim, brand, break and harness the loose herds. The event, which included fun not only for the livestock owners but for the whole community, grew in popularity. As word spread of the unique yearly affair, visitors from near and far would book rooms at the local boarding houses and hotels to take part in the festivities.

In 1925, the Volunteer Fire Department added a new event with the creation of the annual pony auction to assist in raising funds for the department as well as a way to manage the numbers of the herd.

The ponies gained international notoriety with the 1947 publishing of Misty of Chincoteague, a popular children's book by Marguerite Henry telling the story of the wild pony Phantom, her foal Misty and the children who buy and raise her.

To this day, thousands of people flock to Chincoteague Island to watch the Pony Penning and enjoy the Firemen's Carnival. For many of them, the trek to the shores of Assateague Channel on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July has become an annual event; an opportunity to participate in a tradition older than the country itself.

The Festival

This July, tens of thousands of spectators from around the world will gather to mark the 96th year of Chincoteague's annual Pony Swim. The week long festivities will be fun-filled for the whole family and will showcase the work of the Saltwater Cowboys and the beauty of these wild horses.

Let's take a look at what a visit to this long-standing annual event will offer to guests coming this year to check it out.

The weekend prior to Wednesday's Pony Swim, "Saltwater Cowboys" on horseback will begin to round up the approximately 150 adult wild ponies that live on Assateague Island, along with the 60 to 70 foals that were born in the spring. On both days, visitors will have a great viewing of the cowboys at work and the beauty of the herds that live on the island.

Saturday, July 24, 2021 -- Southern Herd Roundup. The smaller portion of the herd, approximately 50 ponies and their foals, live on the southern tip of the island and will be corralled by the cowboys in preparation for their Wednesday swim.

Sunday, July 25, 2021 -- Northern Herd Roundup. The larger part of the herd lives on the northern part of the island and will be corralled in preparation for their swim on Wednesday.

Monday, July 26, 2021 -- Pony Beach Walk. Spectators will want to rise early to catch this! At day break the cowboy will escort the northern herd down the beach along the shoreline of the Atlantic to be joined with the Southern corral. This will be a prime time to observe the unique beauty of these animals and grab some awe-inspiring photo memories of the experience.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021 -- A Visit with the Vet. The ponies receive their annual check-ups as vets look over the herd and make sure all are in good health.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021-- Its PONY SWIM & PARADE Day -- the highlight of the week. The Saltwater Cowboys put their unique corralling practices in play today as they swim the ponies and foals from Assateague Island over to Chincoteague Island. Spectators will have a variety of viewing opportunities to observe this favored event. The first foal to come ashore will be named King or Queen Neptune and will be given away in a raffle drawing at the carnival grounds later in the day. After their swim, the ponies rest for a while and then are once again escorted by the saltwater cowboys in a "parade" down Main Street to the fairgrounds for Thursday's pony auction.

Thursday, July 29, 2021 -- Pony Auction -- Thursday's auction of the foals helps to maintain the healthy size population on the island as well as raises funds for veterinary care for the herd each year. Included in the auction each year are a few "buy back" ponies which are foals that will return to the island to live out its life as part of the Chincoteague herd.

Friday, July 30, 2021 -- Return Swim--the adult ponies will make the return swim to Assateague Island where they will live in the wild for another year. The week long experience also includes a blueberry festival, carnival and a daily showing of the movie Misty of Chincoteague. The surrounding area also holds many attractions and experiences that would make a week-long trip to the region full of memorable and unique moments.

Everyone needs to experience the PONY SWIM of Chincoteague Island at least once. Do not miss out on this unique opportunity. And now is the time to plan. With its popularity and worldwide acclaim, accommodations and special reserved viewing spots fill up fast so don't delay -- Contact your Diserella Travel Consultant today or request a quote here to find out how to make a summer trip to Chincoteague a memorable experience this year.

About the Author:

Pamela has been visiting the Walt Disney World parks for over 30 years, first as a child herself and most recently with her granddaughter.

Contact her today to start planning your magical vacation.


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