Chincoteague ponies are being rounded up on the Virgina island once again; an annual endeavor which has been going on for nearly a century. The “Saltwater Cowboys,” as the volunteer herders have been dubbed, are spending a lot of time in the saddle gathering up the wild ponies on Assateague Island in preparation for their swim to the auction block.
Each year, the Chincoteague ponies swim the Virginia waterway so their foals can be auctioned, and then the herd swims back to the island where they can roam free for another 365 days. On Wednesday morning between 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., the Chincoteague ponies swim across the Assateague Channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island begins. The pony swim route is near Memorial Park, where spectators can watch the highly-anticipated annual equine event.
The Virginia wild pony roundup was made famous after the 1947 Marguerite Henry book, Misty of Chincoteague, became a bestseller and made national headlines. The yearly Chincoteague wild pony swim began in 1925. This year’s roundup marks the 90th anniversary of the annual event.
The pony penning event began as a Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company fundraiser. The firefighters still own the herd and continue to use the foal auction funds as a fundraiser to purchase equipment and to meet other needs of the department. In addition to garnering needed funds to help protect the community, the Chincoteague VFC must also keep in compliance with a National Parks Service dictate which allows only 150 horses to live on the island. Some of the proceeds are given to a local charity that helps provide veterinary services for the horses throughout the year.
“Misty was probably the most famous pony of all,” Chincoteague Island firefighter Denise Bowden said when referencing the mare featured in Henry’s children’s novel and 1961 film. “But Surfer Dude comes in a real close second. He was that iconic stallion. He was a handsome thing.
Surfer Dude was one of the most popular horses with visitors who came to the area. The stallion reportedly roamed Assateague Island, captivating those who saw him with his long, blonde mane and mismatched eyes. Sadly, the beloved horse passed away in May. The firefighters found Surfer Dude’s remain on the southern end of the island and believe the horse died of natural causes, including advanced age and being forced to endure a harsh winter. A statue in the stallion’s honor at the local carnival grounds has been painted to look like Surfer Dude – the figure even boasts one blue eye and one brown eye.
[Images via Wikimedia Creative Commons, The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and Twitter]