The Annual Chincoteague Pony Swim

Sep 12, 2013 1 comments

Every year, some 150 wild Chincoteague ponies are rounded up on Assateague Island, a long barrier island located off the eastern coast of Delmarva in the United States states of Virginia and Maryland. Volunteers called Saltwater Cowboys take the ponies for a swim across the Assateague Channel to another island, Chincoteague where the foals are paraded to carnival grounds and finally auctioned off. The annual swim, currently in its 88th year, is part of a week-long series of events on Chincoteague and Assateague designed to thin out the herd of wild ponies. Tens of thousands of spectators from around the world gather on Chincoteague Island each year to watch this annual tradition.

The auction helps to control the overall size of the herd, keeping it from growing too large, while also being a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The Fire Company uses some of the proceeds from the auction to provide veterinary for the ponies through out the year.


Photo credit: Mark Wilson

Although popularly known as Chincoteague ponies, this breed of horses actually live on Assateague Island. Believed to have descended from survivors of wrecked Spanish galleons in the 17th century, the ponies initially inbred uncontrollably leading to large number of conformation faults. In 1985, the practice of pony penning began, with settlers rounding up ponies and removing some of them to the mainland. In 1924 the first official "Pony Penning Day" was held by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, where ponies were auctioned as a way to raise money for fire equipment. The annual event has continued in the same fashion almost uninterrupted to the present day.

The Chincoteague ponies graze in two herds on Assateague island, split by a fence at the Maryland/Virginia state line, with a herd of around 150 ponies living on each side of the fence. The herds live on land managed by two different federal agencies with very different management strategies. Ponies from the Maryland herd, referred to in literature of the National Park Service as Assateague horses, live within Assateague Island National Seashore. They are generally treated as wild animals, given no more or less assistance than other species on the island, other than to be treated with contraceptives to prevent overpopulation. Conversely, the Virginia herd, referred to as Chincoteague ponies, lives within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge but is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The Virginia ponies are treated to twice yearly veterinary inspections, which prepare them for life among the general equine population if they are sold at auction. Around 300 ponies live on Assateague Island, while another 1,000 live off-island, having been purchased or bred by private breeders.


Photo credit: Mark Wilson


Photo credit: Mark Wilson


Photo credit: Mark Wilson


Photo credit: Erin Kirkland


Photo credit: Erin Kirkland


Photo credit: Mark Wilson


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Photo credit: Associated Press


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Sources:, Wikipedia


  1. I live in Maryland and ive seen some of these horses. Probleknis when you drive on the island there horse loop evreywhere. And if you run over it you will NEVER forget the sound.


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