By the Time Most People Arrive, the Cowboys are Already Riding

Following the swim and a rest period, the Cowboys move the ponies to Ridge Road where they parade in front of thousands on their way to the Carnival Grounds.

     Pony Penning in 2013 will be held the week of July 22-July 26. The Swim will be Wednesday, July 24 and the Auction, the following day, Thursday, July 26. For full schedule go to http://www.chincoteaguechamber.com/

  By Misty Thornton and Robert Boswell

Once again visitors from across the nation are making plans to head to Chincoteague Island in Virginia for the grand event known as Pony Penning the last week of July. Yes, there will be joy in the eyes of children when they see the famous ponies up close and memories for those who have been here before. 

The ponies, unknown to many, are rounded up not only in July, but also in October, the fall roundup, and again in April, the spring roundup. No ponies are auctioned off at these roundups but Dr. Charlie Cameron, the long-time pony veterinarian, gets to see every one of them. The ponies don’t like it much, but Dr. Cameron makes them open their mouths anyway, and gives them each a squirt of worm medicine and other protections against the elements of living in the wild of Assateague Island.

The ponies also get to see the Salt Water Cowboys who come to the islands three times a year for the roundups.  

Those who plan to get up early Monday morning to see the ponies as they are herded along the Atlantic Ocean waterfront, or plan to get up even earlier to see them swim Assateague Channel on Wednesday morning, might keep in mind it is the Cowboys who get up earlier than anyone. Their work begins on Saturday, two days before Pony Penning even begins.

The Cowboys, almost as famous as the Chincoteague ponies begin their work on Saturday with the roundup of the southern herd. Then, on Sunday they move to the northern range to round up the larger herd of about 100 ponies and foals. The Cowboys come from near and far places including Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia.

All of them bring their own mounts in trailers along with hay, water and riding gear. Some leave early in the week for what is an annual family event, meeting old friends and children of friends they have known for years.

Generations of Cowboys have ridden in the roundups. The current July pony week came about after a string of disastrous fires in the Town of Chincoteague. The villagers realized their fire fighting equipment was seriously inadequate. In 1925 the town authorized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to hold a carnival during Pony Penning to raise funds.

That year over 15 colts were sold to benefit the fire company and the carnival was a huge success. Bolstered by the interest in the pony swim, visitors began arriving from across the country for the annual penning. The crowd in 1937 was estimated at 25,000. The increased revenue from the carnivals and auctions enabled the fire company to modernize its equipment and facilities, and in 1947 it began to build its own herd by purchasing ponies from local owners. They moved the herd to Assateague where the government allowed, publicly owned, not private, herds to graze on the newly established Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

That same year, 1947, Marguerite Henry published "Misty of Chincoteague," the story that made Pony Penning internationally famous. A movie followed, as did several sequel books. The tale of the wild pony Phantom, her foal Misty and the children who buy and raise her has become a classic, still loved and enjoyed by each new generation.

As much as pony week has become an occasion they look forward to, no one should fail to realize that rounding up the ponies from the ranges of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in July is a hot, sometimes dangerous task in prime mosquito and biting bug territory.

The July roundup for Pony Penning can take place in extreme heat. The fall roundup, in October, and the spring roundup in April, can have unbearable weather conditions too.

Cowboy Tom Garner drives 250 miles from his home in North Carolina to get here, pulling Buzz in his trailer.

During spring roundup a few years ago a nor’easter moved in, he said in a previous interview. “In the morning we had thunder and lighting and by the time we finished the rain had turned to sleet.”  In the driving rain, he said, if you don’t keep your horse in motion he will turn his back to the wind. “It was the wettest and coldest I have ever been in my life,” said Mr. Garner.

Mr. Garner said he has been thrown off  twice because the horse’s hooves got stuck in the mud.  "The job is definitely harder than it looks," he said "Getting out there and just riding through marsh and grass sounds easy, but it’s not. Each step your horse takes you hear the sound ‘squish, squash, squish, squash’. Bringing in the ponies is a lot of work and taking them through the town, they seem to wander off every once and a while.”

But Garner, nor any of the other cowboys, would rather be anyplace else. "It's a real honor, to ride,” he said, “and I enjoy seeing spectators enjoying the horses and look forward to it each year.”

Another veteran cowboy who has many stories to tell is Walter Marks, riding for some 28 years. Like so many other riders, he plans to keep it going in the family. His son, Tyler, now a 10th grader, is going to take the reins at the spring roundup as a full fledged Cowboy. Tyler has been by his dad’s side as long as anyone can remember.

The senior, Mr. Marks, a retired state trooper recalls being injured twice. Once was when ice caused his horse to rear up, catching his stomach on the saddle horn, sending him to the doctor.

About 20 years ago, a horse snagged a foot in the sand and “did a summersault on top of me.” That time he broke his leg.

The work of the Cowboys is not done when the ponies are herded into their pens. The northern herd is brought in on Sunday. At daybreak Monday, the ponies are herded down to the beach front and follow along what has become known as the beach run. The ponies are kept in a tight formation because some try to break out. It is often foggy this time of morning on the beach and quiet, except for the lapping waves. So the appearance of the cowboys with ponies in tow can be sudden. The first signal may be the crack of a bull whip, the sound used by the cowboys to move the ponies along. As the whole parade nears Beach Road, the road that runs all the way to the beach, applause breaks out from some 3,000 people who now turn out for this event.

The Cowboys move the ponies into the turn and continue up beach to the big holding pen on the curve. There, the northern herd and the southern herds are joined together, remaining there until the next step of their journey, Wednesday morning. Once again the ponies are moved across sometimes difficult terrain down to the water’s edge. At the first slack tide, the Coast Guard sends up red smoke signaling that the swim is underway.

That brings an uproar from the tens of thousands waiting on banks of the west side of the channel for this storied event to take place.

The wait can be long. To be assured of getting a decent view, people begin arriving as early as 5 a.m for a swim that may not take place for hours. This year visitors should check the latest word from the fire department and on the radio for the time of the swim.

No matter what time it is held, it is another very early day of work for the Cowboys. As the ponies swim over, with only their heads above water, they are watched over by Cowboys, fire department and medical staff. When they come ashore, they are steered into a holding area to rest for about 45 minutes before moving along to their final destination, the Chincoteague Carnival grounds on Main Street.

Many visitors take advantage of the rest to get a close-up look at these famous animals, even getting close enough to pet a forehead or two, but always under the watchful eyes of the Cowboys.

After resting, the ponies are again put into a tight formation and moved along Pony Swim Lane to Ridge Road, where thousands of people line the route cheering and just taking in an experience that bought them to Chincoteague from around the world.

The ponies, with a fire vehicle loaded with members of the press and usually a news helicopter overhead, moves slowly along Ridge to Beebe Road, turning right and going on to Main Street, turning right for the final leg of the journey to the carnival grounds where the auction will take place Thursday morning.

Every step the ponies take is aided by the Cowboys who watch out for people who get too close and see that the roadway is clear of people and vehicles.

The cowboys remain on the job at the auction, then Friday morning, the adult ponies and the few buybacks are marched back down to the Assateague waterfront and returned to the pastures they call home. Only then can the cowboys pack up their own horses and go back home, until the next roundup. ]


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