BY CLARA VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —
The Saltwater Cowboys are gearing up for Chincoteague’s 98th annual Pony Penning, which returns next week.
Events take place each year on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July, when tens of thousands flock to the island to catch a glimpse of the ponies during the swim from Assateague to Chincoteague on Wednesday, July 26, or for a chance to take home a foal after the Pony Auction on Thursday, July 27.
“Swim day is far and away the busiest day of the year on Chincoteague,” said Hunter Leonard, spokesperson for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns and manages the herd. He estimated between 40,000 and 50,000 attend the annual event.
Festivities kick off the Saturday before the Pony Swim with the southern herd roundup and continue through Friday, when the ponies swim back across the channel to Assateague Island.
Gathering the herds
Pony Penning kicked off on Saturday, July 22, with the southern herd roundup starting around 8 a.m.
The Saltwater Cowboys – members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company on horseback – will ride to the southern end of Assateague Island to guide around 50 ponies and their foals into the southern corral.
The next Pony Penning event took place Sunday with the northern herd roundup of more than 100 ponies.
On Monday, July 24, around 6 a.m., the pony beach walk begins. The Saltwater Cowboys will release the northern herd from its corral and walk the ponies down Assateague beach to join the herd in the southern corral.
To watch the beach walk, plan to arrive at Assateague Island National Seashore by 6 a.m. to park. The seashore opens at 5 a.m. and guests must park before 6:30 a.m. to watch the walk, according to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge staff.
On Tuesday morning, July 25, around 9 a.m., a veterinarian will check the ponies to ensure each equine is healthy for the swim from Assateague to Chincoteague the next day.
The public can view the ponies in the southern corral during the vet checks. Parking is available in the Woodland Trail lot.
Buyback foals will also be selected Tuesday morning, ensuring enough colts and fillies return to the island to replenish the herds.
Wednesday morning, July 26, is Pony Swim day, when the Saltwater Cowboys guide the ponies across the channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague, where the foals will be auctioned the next day.
The swim this year will take place between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. during slack tide, when the current is weakest and the ponies can make the swim across the channel.
The swim takes place at Pony Swim Lane, just south of Veterans Memorial Park at 7427 Memorial Park Drive.
Attendees should prepare to spend several hours in the marsh and wear clothes they do not mind getting muddy, including close-toed shoes or rubber boots.
No seating is available at the swim site. Bring sunscreen, water, and bug spray for the wait for the ponies to arrive.
Once the ponies hit the water, the swim lasts roughly three minutes as the herds cross the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague island.
Chincoteague provides a free shuttle service beginning at 5 a.m. between various locations on the island and the swim site at Veterans Memorial Park.
Visitors coming to the island for the day should catch the shuttle at the Chincoteague Municipal Center at 6155 Community Drive.
Visit https://tinyurl.com/4rvh289j for information on the Pony Swim Shuttle and stops.
The first foal to reach the shore after the swim each year is dubbed King or Queen Neptune and will be raffled during a drawing at the carnival grounds around 7 p.m. that evening. The ticketholder must be at the carnival to win.
Tickets are sold nightly at the carnival, which runs 7 to 11 p.m. July 21, 22, and 24 through 29, and at Pony Swim Lane during the wait for the swim.
After a short rest, the ponies will parade down Main Street to the corral at the Chincoteague carnival grounds, 3648 Main St., where they will stay until the auction Thursday morning.
The Pony Auction kicks off at 8 a.m. on Thursday, July 27, at the carnival grounds.
The auction is the fire company’s largest annual fundraiser. A portion of the proceeds helps the company maintain and care for the ponies.
The auction also helps manage the size of the herd on Assateague to prevent it from growing too large.
The auction provides an opportunity to see the foals up close. Plan to arrive early, as the event draws a large crowd. Bring a folding chair, hat, sunscreen, and water for the roughly four-hour event.
The fire company expects to auction around 72 foals this year, six of which are expected to be buyback foals, Leonard said.
The auction will again be a hybrid in-person and online event, after bidding went online during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It works really flawlessly with our in-person” auction, Leonard said of the online bidding.
Pre-registration is not required for bidders at the live event but is required to bid online. Visit www.sporthorseauctions.com or the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s Facebook page for the auction preview and to register online.
Last year, buyers paid an average of $3,908 for a foal to take home, with the lowest winning bid coming in at $2,400. The highest winning bid was $25,500 for a buyback foal. The 2022 auction raised a record-breaking $416,950 for the fire company.
Proceeds from one foal each year go to a local charity. This year, a foal was auctioned early to benefit the fundraiser to help the Museum of Chincoteague Island to purchase and preserve the Beebe Ranch, the longtime home of Misty of Chincoteague.
The adult ponies and remaining foals will make the swim back to Assateague Friday morning at a time to be determined, Leonard said.