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A Long Day in the Chincoteague Marsh, But the Ponies Finally Swim

By Misty Thornton

Editor - Wild Pony Tales

It is the time of the year when children’s eyes mist over. It is the time when the sounds of summer become nays, whinnies, squeals and an occasional snort. It is the annual Swim of the wild ponies across Assateague Channel as thousands settle into the marshy banks and others jockey their boats to get a close-up view as the ponies, heads bobbing, make their way to shore on Chincoteague Island.

For most of the foals the swim means leaving home. They will be sold to the highest bidders the next day and board trailers to go to new homes across the country.

But for now it is time to enjoy the sights and sounds that inspired Marguerite Henry to write her bestseller, “Misty of Chincoteague,” that more than anything else is responsible for the audience that waits in a hot sun on a mucky marsh.

The 2011 Swim on was held July 27. The last week of July every year is pony week, known as Pony Penning, here on Chincoteague Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The Swim this year was well past noon, but eventually umbrellas came down as the ponies came closer and closer with only their heads above the waterline until they splashed ashore. You didn’t have to be down front to know the ponies had reached land. The big crowd reacted with yells, applause and all around excitement that could be heard all the way back to Ridge Road.

But down front no one took their eyes off the ponies even for a second, not wanting to miss a moment that most had come many miles to see. And when the ponies were granted some 45 minutes of rest before heading to the corral at the carnival grounds, when visitors could actually walk up and children could reach out and pet a pony's head, yes, you could find young eyes that were taking in a moment they would never forget.

 For the Wild Pony Tales staff, swim day means getting up early. A couple of our writers live on the Island and got to make a later start to their day. But for Zackrey Hoverson, Robert Boswell, our publisher, and I Wednesday, swim day, began at 3:45 a.m. After a 20 mile drive, we arrived at 4:50 a.m. at our usual parking lot directly across from Pony Swim Lane. Here, 8 1/2 hours later, the ponies would be guided by the Salt Water Cowboys for a three mile parade onto Ridge Road., then south to Beebe Road and on to Main Street, ending at the carnival grounds. At about 5 a.m. the parking lot owner Tyrone Mason of Mason Oil, opened the gate and took our $10 parking fee. We were first in the lot and got our front row parking spot.

Since we would be a long way from a bathroom, I figured I should try and use one of the portable potties set up for the large crowd.  The portables potties are a few yards away from Pony Swim Lane, but a long way from the waiting area where we will be stationed. However, they have improved over the previous years' potties even though one of them tended to rock back and forth, not quite being on solid ground.

While waiting in the very early morning, the only things we could see were  headlights from vehicles, shining brightly, and a TV news reporter getting her equipment set up. Soon, Zackrey and I unpacked and repacked everything separately that we needed to take with us across the marsh to the waiting area. Mr. Boswell had made sure we carried water, snacks and the ever important bug spray. On our mucky walk to the water, we planned out everything we had to do from what we've done in the previous years.

To get to the main waiting area, we had to travel through muck and marsh, which at times can be up to your knees. When we started across, taking off flip flops and sandals, it wasn’t so bad. There were only two other small family groups that had passed through before us. Besides our snacks and water we carried two tri-pods, a camera bag, chairs, and blankets, making our trip through the marsh a little challenging.

As the earliest people started showing up, before fire company officials arrived, they took one look at the marsh, then decided they had found a better way to get down front. They hauled their coolers full of food and drinks, baby carriages and chairs up on the dock built by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, a much dryer way to our waiting area. What the visitors didn’t know was that even if they missed sinking up to their knees in smelly muck on their way to the shoreline, they’d have to travel through it on the way back. The dock is for  fire company members and is used mainly for getting people out in emergencies. Once the emergency crews were on the scene no one else was allowed on the dock.

Umbrellas and chairs full of people were all around us within an hour. Having at least a seven hour waiting period before the tide was suppose to slack down enough so that the ponies could swim across, people started rolling out blankets on the wet marshy grass to lay or even sit on. Some even decided to take a nap.

During the wait, those who weren’t grabbing a nap or reading a book, were buying raffle tickets for the first pony to reach the shore, to be crowned either King or Queen Neptune. Proceeds from the tickets go to the Women's Auxiliary of the fire department.

As noon came many of the sleepers awoke and began to get impatient with the wait. Every other minute or so, another person asked what the time was and when the ponies were going to swim.

A voice over a loudspeaker kept the crown appraised of the coming event. Then the announcer said that the governor of Virginia, Robert McDonald, was to give a speech shortly before the pony swim was to begin. The governor reminded everyone that all of the profits of the whole Pony Penning week went to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, along with proceeds from the month long carnival that began around the first week of July.

Suddenly the crowd heard the sounds of horses and everyone got up from their seats to see. A few of the Famous Salt Water Cowboys, who round up the ponies each year, were passing through the crowd to get to the resting area for the ponies. “Oohh’s” and “Ahh’s” were all we could hear around us as they watched the cowboys and their horses make sure everything was secure for the ponies now to arrive within the hour.

Soon, a small barge used by cowboys to get their mounts across the channel, came along through the water with about seven Saltwater Cowboys and their horses. Everyone got excited and cameras were snapping photos like crazy.

Well, at around 1: 29 p.m. the Coast Guard finally sent out the red flare from their boat, signaling that the Swim had begun. This is all it took for the crowd to jump up, everyone was pulling down umbrellas, just waiting to see the first ponies in view. As the bobbing heads came into view, some people near us started yelling at a camera crew who had managed to get further to the front and block our view. “Get out the way!” one yelled. “Can you move? We need to see the ponies!” another shouted. Willingly they squished in so that the people behind them could see.

As the swimmers got closer, people started saying  “I can hear them,” and “Look that one's in the lead for King Neptune.” When they were about 100 yards away, two ponies took the lead. Each determined to get there first. The crowd was cheering and sure enough one of them was crowned King Neptune.

Shortly after the first pony reached the shore, the others piled up behind it, all of them coming in dripping to the delight of their audience. Most of the foals decided to take a lunch break, nudging their mothers to stand still so they could nurse. One little pony was having a hard time getting up onto the resting area grass so the mother nudged it along and up the hill and onto  land. Most of the older ponies used the rest period to munch on the cord grass that is a main part of their diet.

As the rest time ended for the ponies it was time for the "city folks", to make it back through the marsh. This time the route was the same for everyone, mud up to your knees. But this didn't seem to slow the conversation about the magic of the Swim still fresh in everyone's mind.

Not every pony from Assateague had to swim. The ponies and mares that are too young, too old or too pregnant are pulled out by Dr. Charlie Cameron, the official pony vet. They get a trailer ride to the carnival grounds.

As visitors walked up Pony Swim Lane ahead of the ponies they lined up along the streets, to get another look at the famous. Soon the ponies, under cowboy escort,  paraded down Ridge Road to Beebe Road and then onto Main Street. Getting things packed and in our car to leave I heard the sound of galloping. I looked behind me and sure enough a pony had escaped from the formation and decided to circle around into our parking lot, giving several cowboys a little added adventure.  It didn’t last long because they had the little one surrounded and led back to the others leaving the onlookers smiling even more.

Another big crowd awaited the arrival of the ponies at the carnival grounds which ended when they reached the big corral. There they would have plenty of hay and water, and the little ones could nurse and sleep. A big day was coming up, the auction, the last day mothers and foals would be together.

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