Saltwater Cowboys and Ponies  

This July will be the 87th year of the Chincoteague, Virginia annual Pony Swim! Every year people come from everywhere to witness this annual tradition. Tens of thousands of people come to this thinly populated area each year to witness the Saltwater Cowboys guide nearly 100 ponies from the northern coral to join ponies that are already in the southern corral. The ponies swim down along the beach from Assateague Island to Chincoteague, Virginia. This year the pony swim will occur on July 25th, 2012.

Before the swim the Saltwater Cowboys take to horseback and round up all of Assateague Island’s nearly 150 wild ponies and herd them into the northern and southern corrals. The herding occurs the weekend before the Wednesday pony swim. The day of the swim the Saltwater Cowboys guide the ponies as they swim down the coast when the tide is slack. The time of slack tide varies from year to year but is essential because it makes the swim easier for the ponies. The official time of the swim is announced the week before at the carnival grounds. The swim usually occurs sometime from early morning to early afternoon.

After the ponies make the swim they rest for about 45 minutes in the southern corral which is located on Assateague Island by the road that leads to the beach. After their rest the Cowboys then herd them down main street for “parade” to the carnival grounds where they will stay penned until the auction the next day. There is a carnival that evening that begins around 7 p.m. packed with food, fun and games for all ages.

The best way to experience the pony swim up close is to reserve a spot on a charter boat. The charter boats are in high demand and you must plan for months in advance because they fill up rather quickly. Otherwise you’ll need to pick up a shuttle to bring you in for the festivities. There is a free shuttle available each year. The only actual parking on the Island is for handicapped people. If you have local accommodations there should be shuttles that will bring you from where you are staying to the event. It gets crowded really quickly so getting an early start is a good idea.

There are a few purposes of the pony swim. The festival itself is something that the community depends on to continue to thrive. The auction helps control the size of the herd and raises money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Department. They have tips on their website if you are interested in bidding on a pony. They also designate a handful of “Buy Back” fouls that return to Assateague to live out its life. The Buy Back ponies are auctioned with the rest of the ponies and the winner gets to name it before it goes back to live wild and free.

The day following the auction the remaining 100 or so ponies that were not auctioned make the return swim to live in the wild until next year’s annual Pony Swim. This event is spectacular if you plan it in advance.