When I was a young girl, coming to the beach each summer for a few weeks, there was one thing I always wanted to do that we simply never did. Each summer, we swam in the waves, built sandcastles, chased down the ice-cream man, flew a kite, went crabbing in the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge, ate seafood and made the much-looked-forward-to trip to Funland on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach.
But we never once went to Pony Penning.
Though I was a typical horse-crazy pre-teen girl — a huge fan of the “Misty of Chincoteague” book and all that went with it — and we did occasionally end up in the area during that last week of July, we never once made the trek to the south to see the wild ponies make their famous swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague’s shores.
So, a few years ago, after I’d moved here full-time, I decided the adult me would make the pilgrimage the young me had never been able to make.
I set out early in the morning, well before the sun was even up. The swim can start as early as 7 a.m., and it’s a roughly two-hour drive to Chincoteague from the Bethany Beach area. Add in a little leeway for time to get to the swim site, get a good spot and any traffic, and you’re looking at 4:30 a.m. as the latest you can safely get moving on Pony Penning Wednesday.
As I scrambled out of bed at O-dark-30 and struggled to get organized and out the door, I started to see why it was that my father never agreed to go to Pony Penning the few times I actually asked. But I was determined and sure the effort would pay off.
A scenic drive through coastal farmland rewarded me, though it eventually seemed like I would never arrive at my destination. When I did, I knew it, for traffic was already backed up across Chincoteague’s small bridge — people all headed toward Chincoteague High School, which was and is the major pick-up/parking point for the shuttles that bring Pony Penning visitors to the swim locations. (Parking costs around $10 and goes early.)
It was past 6:30 by the time I boarded a bus at the school and I was in a virtual panic for fear I’d miss the swim. Little did I know.
Yes, indeed, the swim can start as early as 7 a.m. Depending on the tides, it can also start as late as 11 a.m., which is about when it started that year. By that time, I had been dropped off at the swim area, hiked across a field, tramped through marsh muck and mud, and been pretty well devoured by mosquitoes.
I was baked by the sun, downing every bit of the water I’d brought and vehemently wishing I had a chair to sit on — or better yet, a spot on one of the many boats that lined the swim route.
But I did have a good spot — right up against a fence, I was ready with my camera when the ponies finally became visible across the water.
Most of us know the story of the wild ponies of Assateague. In legend, the wild herds were shipwreck victims, thrown onto the sands of the barrier island in the wreck of a Spanish galleon.
In reality, they’re probably the descendents of herds set loose there for contained grazing by early settlers in the area. And that’s probably where the “penning” custom came into play, with owners coming over to the island annually starting in the 1700’s to claim and otherwise deal with their individual horses.
Nowadays, there are actually two herds — one on the Maryland side of the island and one on the Virginia side, separated by a fence at the state line. The latter is owned today by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which was designated in 1925 to hold an annual carnival around the penning event. That same year the penning first included swimming the ponies across the channel instead of owners visiting the island or bringing the ponies over by boat.
The fire company in 1947 started to buy up the Virginia herd and today benefits from both the carnival and the auction of the ponies — some of the fillies and colts old enough to be separated from their mothers, plus yearlings — held starting the day after the swim.
The herds living on Assateague’s Maryland side are familiar to many of those visiting the Ocean City area, since they frequent areas visitors to the park and campers also share.
They’re domesticated enough not to be intimidated by people but still wild enough to bite and kick those unwise enough to approach them. And they’re reproducing well enough on their island refuge that veterinarians have had to experiment with birth-control drugs to keep the herd’s population below the 150-member maximum that has been shown as its healthy limits.
On the Virginia side, it’s the annual auction that keeps that herd to 150 members.
It’s also the reason thousands of people each year head to the small island on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, and brave the sun, mud, bugs and waiting just to see the wild ponies come ashore.
I think the big draw of the event is watching so many dozens of horses swim so bravely across some pretty deep water. Some of the mares by now have made the trip many times. They’re old hands at it and swim it with total aplomb.
The foals get their first tries at it, and beyond the simple cuteness factor of baby horses in general, it’s the drama of seeing these Assateague foals make their first swims that really hits home for most of us – especially the kids. Just like people, they take to it with a variety of attitudes — some brave and bold, some timid but stalwart and some taking on more than they can handle.
That’s the time when those “saltwater cowboys” really come into play, with the volunteer firefighters going to their traditional horseback and boat-based positions to help out any of the horses that need it and help reunite any mothers and babies that get separated during the swim.
The whole thing’s a triumph of nature, determination, organization, the human/horse relationship and centuries-old tradition. It’s easy to see how author Marguerite Henry was inspired by the custom and the fortitude of the study little ponies, as well as how the 1947 book has continued to help draw visitors to the island and it’s pony-enhanced economy for more than 50 years.
I’ll admit — the swim was over all too quickly, as the horses gathered in a waiting area to recuperate from the swim. But that’s the part that most people forget from their childhood readings of the Misty books — there’s more to come.
In fact, the saltwater cowboys will soon head the ponies through the streets of Chincoteague to the carnival grounds, where there’s a carnival in full swing during the week and most weekends in June and July.
That means dinner from the Ladies Auxiliary at 11 a.m., as well as crabcake sandwiches, oyster fritters, carnival rides and games (at 7 p.m. each night) and entertainment each night at 11 p.m. — things that hearken back in a very deep way to that era of 1947 in which the famous book was written, as well as to the traditional Eastern Shore way of life.
It’s all about family, food and good, clean fun — with wild horses.
And as the ponies rush through the streets, it’s almost as dramatic a thing to behold as their swim — well worth getting a good viewing spot. Then it’s time to give a good look to all the new babies and yearlings — especially if you’re inclined to really give in to that common childhood wish for a pony. (Don’t forget you’ll have to make arrangements for transport and care, if you do.)
The auction starts Thursday at 8 a.m., with ponies going for in excess of $2,000 and up to $10,000, or more. The top sellers usually have the distinctive pinto markings of many of the Assateague herd, but there are ponies to light up the eye of any child, for sure. The first colt or filly on the island is also named King or Queen Neptune for the year and is raffled to those at the carnival grounds.
Even if you’re not planning on buying (or winning) a pony, there’s plenty to see and do on Chincoteague while you’re there.
You can visit the original Beebe Ranch. The Chincoteague Pony Centre is now home to the largest herd of Misty family ponies on the island, and offers collectables, pony rides, lessons and a Misty museum. And there are birding, fishing, camping, nature tour and other nature-centered opportunities galore, including an oyster and maritime museum and waterfowl museum.
There are more seafood restaurants and beds-and-breakfasts that you could visit in one go. And shops offer not just collectables but fine art and literature that take advantage of the island’s location and history.
And NASA’s Wallops Island facility is also on the drive, if you’re so inclined.
It makes for not only ample reason to go to the event but ample reason to stay around for a day or three. Indeed, another aspect of Pony Penning that most people forget is the return swim on Friday (time to be announced). That offers not only the opportunity to see the complete event but a chance to see the ponies in a little less hurried and crowded environment than at Wednesday’s swim from the island.
But whether you go for that single day or stick around for the whole event, Pony Penning is a unique experience that should not be missed. Go armed with sunscreen, water, bug repellent, old clothes, snacks and plenty of patience, and it could be that you, your children — or your inner child — will be well rewarded with memories for a lifetime.