Assateague Island National Seashore

Assateague Island National Seashore

Chincoteague Pony Swim

July 7, 2011, 2:46 pm

By Naomi Legros

Love ponies? Is Marguerite Henry’s 1947 famed novel “Misty at Chincoteague” ranked on your favorite books list? Well, regardless if it is or isn’t, the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim, a wonderful two-day extravaganza, will affirm your love for the beautiful animal. 

They are two herds of wild ponies that share their home on Assateague Island; dividing the Maryland and Virginia border. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service, whereas the Virginia herd is managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer and Fire Company. During the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim, referred to as “pony penning,” approximately 150 Assateague horses from the Virginia herd are rounded up by “Saltwater Cowboys.” The ponies swim through the Assateague Channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island on the last Wednesday in July.


The idea of pony penning derived on the island in the 1700s when livestock owners became interested in claiming, branding, breaking and harnessing their loose herds. This became a great festivity where people came together and ate and drank as a community; but was not “published” until 1835. The event was not as established as it is today, but took place on both Chincoteague and Assateague Islands as a two-day event, one day on each island. An older tradition, sheep penning, coincided with pony penning on Assateague and was once very popular until publicity spread outside of the community about the ponies, even setting official dates for the festivity, which decreased sheep penning’s popularity until it stopped in 1914. By 1925, the tradition that we are now accustomed to was set and stone. For free, you would be able to witness the ponies swimming across the Assateague Channel. The first foal to reach the island is crowned “king” or “queen” Neptune and is raffled away later in the day. After all the ponies arrive ashore, they are given a 45-minute rest before they are off to Main Street to parade in the carnival grounds. Marguerite Henry wrote a novel based on the real life Chincoteague pony named Misty--the Newbury Honor winning book introduced pony penning on an international platform as well as having a movie adaptation and several sequel books.


If you thought the pony swim was the only thing you would get out of a late July day in Virginia, you’re in for another surprise! The swim gets the ponies ready for the annual carnival, which basically is a pony auction. This also dates back to 1925, after Chincoteague had a slew of fires, and the fire department needed to raise funds in order to buy sufficient equipment. The carnival was a huge success, and since then, Chincoteague’s Volunteer Fire Co. have been in charge of authorizing the event. It serves to raise money for the Volunteer Fire Company, and to keep the herd from growing too large. The wild ponies of Assateague are auctioned off by the Volunteer Fire Co. and the ponies that do not get auctioned off swim back to Assateague the following day, returning to their natural habitat until the next year’s event. If you want to bid during the auction, make sure you get there bright and early to get great seats! Large crowds always show up so make the most of your time. Bringing foldable chairs (bleachers fill up pretty fast) and cameras to stay comfortable and capture all the moments of the day! And remember, only cash, Visa and Mastercards are accepted during the auction.

This year, the event will take place on July 27th and July 28th, 2011. For more information on a beloved tradition, visit http://www.chincoteaguechamber.com/pony-swim/.

Image:The 82nd Annual Chincoteague Pony Swim featured wild ponies swimming across the Assateague Channel into Chincoteague. Source: United States Coast Guard