By Tammy Rickman
Lightning flashed through my window at two in the morning, waking me from an already restless sleep. I laid there and listened as thunder clapped and roared outside. Within moments another bright flashed crackled across the sky splitting the heavens.
I was already tired and running on sheer will from the weekend of early mornings and late nights watching the roundup activities that preceded the 2009 Pony Swim which would take place in just two days. This would not be my first Pony Swim and it had not been my first roundup but each and every year is different, new, and exciting. Like life, wild animals are never predictable and that means Pony penning is never exactly the same.
This year was different because I was no longer the tourist but the resident. Familiar faces rounded up the ponies, monitored crowed control, and waved hellos.
It was also different because for the first time I was going to the beach to watch the ponies of the northern herd run the few miles of the beach to be corralled with the southern herd on Beach Road. There they would rest before swimming Assateague Channel Wednesday morning, July 29th, 2009. This event is part of the annual activities of Pony Penning each year and takes place on Monday morning just around sunrise.
As I lay there, staring at my clock and watching the reflection of the lightening in the mirror of my dresser, I wondered about the morning that was quickly approaching.
The next few hours passed in restlessness. The clock buzzed as the numbers changed to 5:00 a.m. Unsure of the weather I dressed, combed my hair, brushed my teeth, and gathered the camera and equipment in between the many peaks out the window.
The weather had set in before midnight dumping rain as the skies boomed and bellowed in loud bursts. I had settled into the idea that I may not get to shoot any photos if the rain did not let up. As I stepped out the door a little before six I was relieved to find only a drizzle of rain still falling from the skies. Above the trees the skies appeared to be calming and the first light of the day was crawling skyward.
By the time I reached the beach the rain had dissipated and clear skies rose above the water, dancing in brilliant colorful patterns across the ocean. Not many people had ventured out yet because of the rain so parking was easy. After grabbing the camera bag it was a short walk down the beach to find a spot I liked.
By 7 a.m. the beach had filled with the expectant faces of adults and children. Cameras were set up behind the cones marking the safe distance for those awaiting the arrival of the ponies.
While we waited children ran between the water and the cones, couples strolled in the early morning rays of an ocean sunrise, surfers played in the waves of the warm Atlantic waters, and sea shells were gathered into piles. Others, like me, toyed with camera equipment, attention focused on getting the perfect shot.
They appeared in the distance, floating out of the fog. Like something out of a storybook, they came toward us splashing through the surf. The whips of the Saltwater Cowboys cracked the air as they flanked the ponies on three sides using the water as a fourth barrier.
Silhouetted by the sun the Cowboys rode down the beach. The picture they created seemed from the pages of a forgotten western. They rode with dignity and pride that is born of tradition and dedication.
Then the picture they created was broken by a yell as several cowboys bound over the dunes to wrangle a pony who had escaped their tight formation. The others halted the progression and waited for the arrant pony to be brought back to the herd.
After the chase, the Cowboys returned with the pony, and the ponies moved forward. A foal, which was less than the well behaved child, darted in and out of the formation. He was a pinto whose coloring only broke the white of his coat on his head and in a small patch at his hip on one side. He ran toward the back of the group only to be turned by a few riders. Briefly, he would return to the herd only to resurface and scamper up and down the length of the group. At times he paused, appearing to consider his options. The sight of him running and playing in the sand made children giggle with delight and adults sigh at his cuteness.
Within minutes the long awaited arrival had come and gone. The ponies left the sand of the beach and began a slow progression past the parked cars and flashing cameras toward the corral. Within moments they would join the Southern Herd and rest among a flurry of on lookers.