By Tammy Rickman
On Friday evening the warm rays of the sun danced along the surface of the salty marsh waters. The warm breeze of an April spring blew, teasing the grassestolife. As I sat there, along the road, I watched several ponies grazing in the warmth of the sun. To many it would have seemed like a normal day on the island. People stopped to stare at the horses, watch a blue heron, and snap some memorable pictures before returning to their cars and heading on down the road that led to Assateague Beach and the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia.
For some of us, a very few of us, it was a slow progression of waiting and watching. There were a few others among the onlookers who, like me, continually scanned the horizon beyond the trees. We were enjoying the view and all of nature’s treasures but we knew something else was coming. Somewhere, out there, on the range of the southern end of Assateague some 50 riders were on horseback. Not just any riders, but the Salt Water Cowboys. The time had come for the spring round-up of the southern herd of wild ponies that bring thousands of onlookers to this small island the year-round.
The first sign of the cowboys came not from sight but from sound. All at once a sharp crack broke the air. The ponies stopped grazing and whinnied in response to this intrusion to their lazy afternoon. Onlookers strained for a view of what they knew was just beyond their sight, birds flew and horse’s hooves splashed. Riding into view, whips in hand, one by one they came. In the same tradition as many before them they rode the range, cracked the whips, called out to the ponies, and did it all with a grace and style that belongs only to them. No whip ever touched a pony. The sound was enough to move the ponies along.
In the eight years I have been visiting the islands, I have had many encounters with the cowboys both on and off duty. I have been to the world famous Pony Penning that happens each July on several occasions. Once I even managed to get lucky enough to be visiting the island one spring. I missed the drive of the round-up but saw the ponies corralled.
Now, I was no longer a tourist but a full time resident of the island that had taken hold of me and never let go. That said… this was the first time I had ever seen them at work. Once they were out of sight I gathered myself and my camera and headed down the road. For two days prior to the round-up it had rained bucket loads. One expects the marshes to be, well “marshy” but today it was standing water only.
Having come out earlier in the day to look around I was well prepared and had made a quick shopping trip to pick up muck boots. Clad in my boots, jeans tucked into the tops, camera around my neck, and more excitement than I could contain, I parked my car along Woodland Trail and headed out on foot. I was headed toward a holding area where the ponies arrive and wait until the whole herd is together.
Down a short path and into the woods I went. About half way in I began splashing rather than walking. It wasn’t long before the woods cleared and opened into what I would have called a marsh meadow had it not been primarily under water. Each step I took made a sucking noise that ended in a dull pop as each foot pulled up out of the mud then sank back in with the next step.
When I arrived at the clearing there were a few others scattered about near the edge of the woods behind poles that appeared to have once supported a fence. The sun still shone brightly in the late afternoon sun and all around nature played its own melody to entertain.
Within a few moments the first riders appeared. At a slow gait they cleared the woods and rode out around the perimeter of the clearing dropping off one by one as they found their post; all without a spoken word.
Water sloshing around my calves and mud gripping at my heels I waited. Every now and then a radio would squeak and squawk as the cowboys communicated the locality of bands of ponies and their own individual locations. I took it all in, the cowboys on their horses, the breeze singing in the trees, cool salty water lapping at my boots, and one of the bluest skies I had ever seen. I was there, in the woods of Assateague Island, among the cowboys, waiting for the wild herds of famous ponies to emerge. Three days later, as I sit and write I am amazed at the experience of it all.
About an hour after I first arrived in the water logged clearing the first ponies arrived. They came out of the woods strolling along rather than charging in as I had imagined they would. They found dry ground in the middle of the clearing beneath a grove of pines. They stayed only a few moments and then disappeared back into the woods. They did this several times.
The sun was hanging lower in the sky. The air was cooling and now carried crispness as it tossed my hair and kissed my cheeks. Though my muck boots kept my feet dry, the coldness of the water began to tease my toes. The adrenaline was wearing off and I was just about to consider going back to the car to get my jacket when I heard the sound that I had waited to hear.
“Here they come,” yelled one of the cowboys. Loud and clear his voice carried across the clearing. I turned and reached for the camera around my neck just in time to catch the first horse round the bend of the clearing near the southern end. A single moment that will replay in my mind more vividly than any photo I could ever snap.
The camera clicked and all thought of the cooling temperature, cold water, sticky mud, or falling darkness subsided. I was gone…caught up in the advancing herd as they pounded and splashed their way toward the northern end of the clearing where a few had gathered to watch them.
It seemed they had only begun their charge when all at once movement stopped and the splashing subsided. Cowboys called out orders, flagged their hands in the air to direct the herd, and ponies shook off marsh mud.
In the moments that followed I was amazed at the nimbleness with which the cowboys coordinated and communicated. Like one hand with many fingers they worked almost effortlessly.
The ponies took a moment to take in their surrounds and gather in their bands. Lead ponies tried to round up their mares and moms collected their new spring foals. A few, feeling the need to assert their rights and boundaries reared up and pounded the mud with their hooves.
The ponies were not a new sight for me… I had seen them many times. Here among the pines, beyond fences, they were in their element…the raw beauty of them reflected in the water beneath them.
After a while I had collected more pictures than any one person needs in order to remember an occasion. There was always that lingering feeling that I had not yet completely captured the moment. That somehow I had left some aspect of it untouched, untold, or unreached.
I slowly made my way out of the clearing, through the woods, and back to my car. I drove the short distance to the corral and found a place to park. I made my way to the far end of the corral and stationed myself in a good position to photograph the herd as they crested the small hill between the marsh meadow and the corral grounds.
The sun was low in the sky creating an amber glow on the marsh grass that spread across the field. The amber light enveloped them as they emerged from the woodlands. Following behind them the herd of ponies bound across the field. The sun gleamed of their bodies and set their manes afire with golden hues of amber. After a short sprint, the cowboys leading the herd parted to let them pass. They splashed through the canal at the base of the hill and rose like mystic beings as they crested the peak. Wet and full of spirit they filed into the corral.
Amid an eruption of cheers and congratulations on a job well done the cowboys followed the ponies over the crest single file. Just as the crowd was thinking the round-up was over and started toward the corral, a few remaining cowboys came over the hill on the heels of a tiny foal on wobbly legs. Scared and not yet sure of where to go he darted in toward the crowd but was quickly rounded up and ushered into the pen.
One of the last cowboys over the hill carried with him the newest addition to the southern herd. A small foal lay draped across the front of the saddle between the cowboy and the saddle horn. He was delivered to the waiting herd and with that the gate clicked shut and the round-up of the southern herd was over.
I stayed for a while and took a few more pictures. As the shutter clicked I couldn’t help but consider the sight before me. The evening wound down and as I took a few more photos cowboys began to depart for Chincoteague, a hot meal, and a good night’s rest before heading out in the early hours of Saturday morning to help Dr. Charlie Cameron with his spring check of the horses. From there they would be off to the northern end of Assateague to do it all over again with the northern herd.
As my shutter clicked and cowboys rode away I could not help but consider what it was I was photographing. The ponies are special in their own right; wild and majestic they are unique creatures. They have a beauty about them out in the marsh that a camera will never truly capture.
However, it isn’t just the ponies. By their own right, it is also their keepers. The members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, who watch over these majestic animals, have a strength that is steeped in tradition, born of fortitude, and executed with pride. They are the Salt Water Cowboys of Chincoteague Island.