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Associated Press

Assateague’s Annual Wild Pony Swim to Chincoteague

July 27, 2011
by Sarah Amandolare
Assateague is a quiet National Seashore destination off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. On the island of Assateague, ponies roam free, but once a year herds are rounded up for a run and swim to Chincoteague.

Assateague’s Horses Rounded Up by Saltwater Cowboys

The 37-mile long barrier island of Assateague comes to life in late July when visitors arrive for the annual pony penning and swim. Herds of the majestic equines are rounded up by so-called saltwater cowboys, and led across the water to Chincoteague in a spectacle drawing the attention of many vacationing families.

This year, the ponies will swim on July 27, and be penned and auctioned on July 28; they will return to Assategue on July 29.

In 1924, the pony penning kicked off as a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Today, during the annual event, the horses are rounded up and herded across the water for an auction at Chincoteague, one method of controlling herd size. These transplanted “Chincoteague Ponies” are considered their own unique breed.

How the Wild Horses Got to Assateague

The horses are often associated with nearby Chincoteague, but actually live on Assateague. According to the National Park Service, legend has it that the horses swam safely to shore after the Spanish ship holding them was wrecked in a violent storm. However, the more widely believed tale says the horses were moved to Assateague by colonists to avoid fencing laws and livestock taxes. Those horses that escaped their owners’ clutches became wild, but are more accurately called “feral,” as they descended from domesticated animals.

Records are kept by the Chincoteague Wildlife Federation to ensure that each horse’s family, health and home state are known. Two herds, each containing 150 horses, are split between the Virginia and Maryland sides of Assateague, and herds further divide themselves into bands of two to 12 horses. Herd size is kept constant by a birth control program that has both improved the horses’ health, and kept the island wildlife safe.

The Island of Assateague

The barrier island of Assateague is a National Seashore with salt marshes, maritime forests and coastal bays. The island is constantly changing, reshaped by wind and by the dynamic combination of salt and fresh water accounting for more than half of the seashore’s 48,000 acres. This unique habitat is suitable to an unusual array of species able to withstand heat, mosquitoes and violent weather, including the famous wild horses.

Visitors may stroll miles of sandy shoreline or unwind at a serene campsite for an unforgettable summer or winter respite.

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