In just two weeks the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department’s annual carnival will culminate in the world famous swimming of the horses. Firemen will become “saltwater cowboys” and drive a herd of wild horses across a narrow channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island and auction off the foals to raise money to support the fire department. This event was made famous by Marguerite Henry whose 1947 book, Misty of Chincoteague, describes the pony swim and remains a favorite of children today.
I’ve seen the swim covered on the news and I’ve visited the horses at Assateague Island but I’ve never been to see the pony swim. I wanted to find out more about this interesting event and the herd of horses that lives at the beach. The Library yielded up several books on the topic. Most helpful were, Wild Horses of the Dunes by Rich Pomerantz (2004), and Hoofprints in the Sand: Wild Horses of the Atlantic Coast by Bonnie S. Urquhart (2002). For this week’s blog I thought I’d share some of what I learned.
Assateague and Chincoteague Islands are part of a long chain of barrier islands that stretches along most of the eastern shore of the United States. These narrow islands have sandy beaches on their ocean side, and piney forest and marshlands on the side facing the mainland. Although horses are not native to Assateague Island, they have been there since at least the 17th century. How they got there is a bit of a mystery. There are several romantic tales involving herds of pirate’s horses, or horses that survived shipwrecks just off shore and swam to the island, but the more likely solution has to do with tax evasion. In Colonial times the English levied a tax on fences. In order to avoid this tax, people moved their herds of horses, cattle, sheep, and even chickens, over to barrier islands like Assateague. Here the animals had natural “fences,” and were free from both predators and the tax man. Today there are feral descendants of these hidden herds on many of the barrier islands off the Atlantic coast.
Assateague Island is divided in half by the state line between Maryland and Virginia. A fence marks the border and separates the horses into two herds. The northern Maryland half is a National Seashore and State Park and is maintained by the National Park Service. The horses here are generally left to their own devices, aside from a birth control system administered by dart. It is easy to visit and see the horses here and one can even camp among the dunes.
The southern half in Virginia forms The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and is run by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. It is a frequent stop for migrating birds and to protect the habitat necessary for the birds, the horse herds are restricted to certain areas. This makes them somewhat more difficult to view than those on the Maryland side. The Virginia horses are owned by The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, Pony Committee, which actively cares for the herd.
Although animal penning and swimming has been going on at Assateague as long as people have kept animals there, it wasn’t until 1925 that the people of Chincoteague, searching for a way to raise money for their new volunteer fire department, hit upon the idea of adding a pony penning and auction to their annual fund raising carnival. Today this event is world famous and thousands of spectators attend, hoping to get a good view of the horses as they make the swim across from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.
The process begins several days before the swim. Members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department trade in their fireman’s helmets and hoses, for cowboy hats and bull whips. They begin at the northern edge of the refuge and slowly drive the horses south where they are penned together in a large corral. Each horse is checked by a vet and on Wednesday, after a day or two of rest, the entire herd, excepting pregnant mares, the very old or very young, and any sick animals, is swum across the channel to Chincoteague. It has become quite the media circus and the horses’ route must be carefully protected from fascinated tourists.
Once across the channel the horses rest and then are herded down the street to the auction pen at the carnival grounds. The auction of the year’s foals takes place on Thursday. Each year between 50 and 70 foals are auctioned off both to raise money for the fire department, and to keep the population of the herd under control. In recent years, the average price of an Assateague pony has been about $2500. In addition to bidding for purchase, visitors can also bid on “buyback” ponies. These are auctioned with the stipulation that they will be donated back to the Fire Company and returned to Assateague Island to join the herd. People that win a buyback pony also win the right to name the pony.
The day following the auction the remaining horses are swum back across the channel and are released for another year. They quickly form up in their family bands and disappear into the dunes, marshes, and piney forests.
If you’re interested in getting more detailed information I encourage you to stop by the Library and take a look at our books on the topic. We have information not only on the Assateague horses but on a variety of feral horse populations. If you’re in the area and would like information about attending the carnival, the swim, or the auction, you can view the guide to the 2018 event here.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail