Inside Chincoteague’s The World Famous Pony Swim
Squinting at the other stallions is a brown pony with a white blaze and a long, golden mane. As he paws the earth in the corral, he stretches his neck and looks around. It’s unusual for him to approach other males so closely. He snorts and jerks his ears forward, making faint whinnies in the process. One older woman remarked, “There’s Riptide.” He is currently the stable’s most popular stallion.
CHINCOTEAGUE, Virginia (AP) – (July 25, 2007) More than 200 wild ponies swam across the Assateague Channel into Chincoteague for the 82nd Annual Chincoteague Pony Swim. The horses are said to have arrived on Assateague Island when a Spanish galleon carrying a cargo of wild mustangs sank off the coast of Virginia, according to legend. The animals that survived swam to shore and are the forefathers of today’s herds. The event, which drew boaters and spectators from all over the country, had a security zone provided by Coast Guard Station Chincoteague. PA2 Christopher Evanson of the United States Coast Guard took this photo.
Riptide was one of the most famous horses in the Chincoteague Pony Swim, which herds all of the wild horses on Virginia’s side of Assateague Island across a canal before auctioning them off. Chincoteague’s wild pony population became famous after Marguerite Henry’s novel Misty of Chincoteague was published in 1947. The money raised goes to a charity that looks after and manages the horses.
Alex Tucker, a member of the fire department’s “saltwater cowboys,” said, “We have control over the entire herd.” This means that the company limits population growth by holding an annual auction, bringing in a veterinarian when a horse appears ill or injured, and occasionally providing food during the harsh winter months. “We limit our interaction with them,” says Chief Bobby Lappin, director of the department’s fire department. Horsekeepers want the animals to be able to “survive on the beach as wild, Chincoteague ponies,” so they don’t want them to become too reliant on humans.
Thousands of people flocked to the beach in the hours leading up to the July 27 swim. “Hello, hey,” the cowboy said as he rounded up his herd and led them to the water, his whip cracking. Bystanders could only see the heads of swimming horses as horses whinnied and dropped their heads into the water.
King Neptune, the first horse to arrive, was crowned and given away to a lucky raffle winner. Several more waded out to the beach and began munching on the newly sprouted marsh grass. A temporary plastic barrier was erected to keep the groupies from petting the horses.
The Chincoteague roundup, like any other method of controlling wild, feral, or free-roaming horses, is divisive. Some animal rights activists are concerned that the rounding up method is inconvenient for horses, that they are not accustomed to swimming, and that the foals may be unable to cross the river. “Because the ponies are appealing and the fire department accepts both cash and credit cards, people who aren’t ready to get a pet may make impulse purchases.”
While each horse is vetted by a veterinarian prior to the swim, the fire department takes special precautions to ensure the safety of the animals. Volunteers ferry the young horses and their mothers to the auction site via a bridge to avoid having to swim across the channel. Any horse that is too old, sick, or pregnant must meet the same requirements. As a result, the swim is only a few minutes long, and horses are allowed to walk on the marshy canal bottom in some areas. Any ponies that purchasers are unable to care for during and after the trip are offered to a Chincoteague Pony Rescue.
The National Park Service manages the park’s population in a different way. It uses hormonal birth control darts to keep a herd of horses on the Maryland side of Assateague Island in check. Spaying and neutering horses surgically is costly, dangerous, and has a negative impact on their behavior.
Keeping wild horses under control isn’t just a problem for the island’s residents. Every year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rounds up horses in the Midwest and sells them to riders or rescue groups. The BLM, on the other hand, was chastised between 2009 and 2012 for selling 1,794 mustangs to a client who sent them to Mexico to be slaughtered for horsemeat. When it comes to wild horses in the United States, there are simply not enough.
In the United States, feral horses deserve more attention and protection than non-endangered wild animals. When deer numbers in a given area are deemed to be excessive, it is common practice to increase the number of hunting licenses available.
Approximately one-fifth of those registered for the Pony Swim were sold. With seven foals, Riptide and the other adult horses were herded across the channel. They will be free to roam Assateague Island until July of the following year, when they will be rounded up again.