By Robert Boswell
This story was first posted in July 2011.
Dawn was just breaking over the Atlantic Ocean on Assateague Beach on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
Yet, up to 4,000 people were up and waiting as the waves lapped the sand on this warm morning near the end of July. It was not your usual beach crowd. Not as many towels, sand buckets, chairs or umbrellas.
But it wasn't the water and sand that brought so many to the beach this Monday morning, July 23. It was the arrival of the northern herd of the famous Chincoteague wild ponies.
The equally famous Salt Water Cowboys had been up and riding long before the crowd settled in along the waterfront. They had opened the gate to the northern corral, home overnight to about 100 ponies and foals. As the ponies came out they were surrounded by the Cowboys in a formation that would prevent ponies from escaping as they were marched along toward the beach.
Once at the beach, the escort party turned south and headed to the waiting crowd near the traffic circle at Assateague Beach. In a little while the people who had left their motel rooms or driven to the Island that morning were not disappointed. They cheered as the whole entourage came into view, many getting a first look at the ponies that were made famous by Marguerite Henry in her best seller, "Misty of Chincoteague." More than any other story, her book and the later movie had brought people to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands from across the country. Thanks to Ms. Henry the Chincoteague ponies had become a national treasure, mystical to many and legendary to others.
Now, here they were, passing right in front of starry eyes of children and parents.
It didn't take long. The whole formation went by in 10 minutes. The foals didn't know it but, except for a few, they were leaving Assateague Island forever. Their time of roaming free as they had in recent months was over.
Once the formation reached Beach Road it turned west, passing more cheering people lining the roadway, and headed to the big corral on Beach Road where they joined the southern herd, putting every pony on Assateague into a single corral. Many of the spectators followed, crowding around the fence, trying to see the ponies and sometimes witnessing a disagreement between stallions who were used to having their own bands of mares in the wild.
In the corral the ponies got water and hay and also got to rest before their big day on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, they would become the star attraction, swimming across Assateague Channel with up to 40,000 fans looking on. They would wind up that day in the corral at the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds to await the famous auction on Thursday. The auction would bring in money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company that owns the ponies.