This year marks the 96th year of Chincoteague’s Annual Pony Swim but sadly Covid has put a stop to this year’s annual swim. Normally every year tens of thousands of people from around the world come to watch the annual pony swim which is a fundraiser.
Wild ponies have inhabited Assateague Island for hundreds of years. Some have suggested that the wild ponies of Assateague trace their origin to horses released to forage on the Island by early settlers. There is also evidence that suggests the ponies are the descendants of the survivors of a Spanish galleon which wrecked off the coast of Assateague. The large number of shipwrecks, together with the fact that it was very common for ships to be transporting ponies to the Colonies or South America, makes it very likely that ponies originally got to Assateague from a shipwreck.
Today two herds of wild horses make their home on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Each year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchases a grazing permit from the National Fish & Wildlife Service. This permit allows the Fire Company to maintain a herd of approximately 150 adult ponies on Assateague Island. The Fire Company controls the herd size with a pony auction on the last Thursday in July.
The purpose of the pony swim on Wednesday is to move the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island so that the foals can be auctioned. The auction takes place on the following day. The auction serves two purposes. First, the auction helps to control the overall size of the herd, keeping it from growing too large. Secondly, the auction is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The Fire Company uses some of the proceeds from the auction to provide veterinary care for the ponies throughout the year.
The Chincoteague Pony became an official registered breed in 1994. The average height of a Chincoteague Pony is between 12 and 13 hands (any horse that stands less than 14 hands is considered a Pony). These small but sturdy, shaggy horses have adapted to their environment over the years by eating dune and marsh grasses and drinking fresh water from ponds. While they appear tame, they are wild.
Each year thousands of spectators including international guests gather on Chincoteague Island to watch this annual tradition over the week. The local fire service runs a carnival and a shuttle service around the island to see the ponies. The best way to see the ponies on the annual swim is to book on a charter boat but tickets do sell out fast.
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