By Wild Pony Tales
For the Saltwater Cowboys October came, it seems, right on the heels of the July 2008 Chincoteague pony swim that brought thousands of people to this Island on the Virginia coast.
Three times a year the cowboys load their mounts into trailers and leave homes in North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and other distant places and travel to Chincoteague where they meet up on the range at Assateague Island, where the famous wild ponies roam.
The cowboys' primary mission is to bring the ponies into their corrals where they have a date withtheir vet, Dr. Charlie Cameron. It is Dr. Cameron and his assistants who squirt medicine into resisting mouths to protect the ponies from the ills that can await them. It was fall round-up time again and this October weekend the Cowboys had to round up the ponies in wind, rain and a harsh fall chill. To a small crowd waiting for the ponies to come in it was cold right through jackets and sweaters but no one left.
In July the cowboys and the ponies had to put up with the heat, flies, ticks, and biting bugs of all kinds. But by October everything had changed except the mosquitoes. Even in the dampness of the late afternoon a can of mosquito spray was welcome.
By the time the riders gathered on the southern range Friday afternoon, it was in conditions far different than in July. The cowboys came with raincoats and trench coats, bundled up from head to toe, looking like old Wild West cowboys.
On this Friday, the Cowboys had harsh weather. Not only did they have the usual water from the marsh on the island, but they had the rain from a low pressure system from the west.
Brian Lewis, a cowboy member of a family of veteran riders from Maryland, who has been riding for six years, said, "It wasn't too bad, just a little bit of bad weather." We've had worse weather, he said, remembering times when the cowboys rode in snow, sleet and hail.
"The weather doesn't make it that much harder. It's just cold and damp, a little harder on the people and horses."
The men had their horses ready at 5 p.m. that afternoon, and herded the ponies along from the marsh to the south side of Beach Road. The cowboys herded them to a fenced holding area just off the Woodland Trail. Then, the whole southern herd is taken through the marsh and woodland to the big Beach Road corral where they spend the night.
In the wild the stallions each command a band of five to seven mares. Once the whole herd of ponies is mixed together the stallions have trouble keeping their bands together and their displeasure sometimes explodes.
On this Friday evening after the ponies were in the Woodland holding area, two stallions got into it, rearing up against each other with one of them being knocked to the ground.
On Saturday, the cowboys got underway at daybreak, confronting wind and mist as they went to find the much larger northern herd. By 10:30 a.m., the horses, with their riders, and the ponies were well on their way into the northern corral, which is nearly four miles out into the Assateague wilderness.
The ponies, as wild as the wind, were scattered all over the area, taking the Cowboys a little longer to get them in order. But some of the ponies came in on their own, ahead of the riders, having been throughthe routine many times.
Usually, in the spring, there are many foals running next to their mothers. But this fall day there was one foal, a little brown with a white streak going down it muzzle that brought oohs and aahs from the smallcrowd of onlookers.
Once the ponies were in the pen, it was time to take a break. The cowboys paused for lunch,delivered to the corral area by the fire department. Then, it was time to load up and leave. Even though the round-up for the cowboys was over more work was ahead for Dr. Cameron and his staff. The veterinarian started his day with the southern herd, then moved out to the northern corral where he waited for the ponies to arrive.
While the cowboys were loading their horses into trailers for the ride home, Dr. Cameron and his helpers opened mouths, one by one, squirting in a liquid medication until every pony had gotten a dose. The next roundup is in April.