Every year on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, tens of thousands of spectators watch as ponies swim across a channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. The ponies, which stand no more than 58 inches at the shoulder, live on the southern, Virginia end of Assateague Island. On the last Wednesday of July every year, “saltwater cowboys” pen the ponies, then walk them on the beach and finally guide them into the water for a 10-minute swim during slack tide, the time between tides when there is no current.
The ponies rest for 45 minutes, then walk down a parade route on Chincoteague’s Main Street; the foals are auctioned on Thursday. The auction and the weeklong events, including a carnival, raffle, food and other activities, are a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns and manages the herd and purchases the grazing permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Then, on Friday, the adult ponies make the swim back to Assateague Island, where they live in the wild for another year. The herd is kept to 150 adult ponies, as the island has limited marsh grasses and fresh pond water.
The Chincoteague Pony Swim, which will be held for the 97th time on July 27, gained attention with Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel, “Misty of Chincoteague,” and its sequels. The 1961 movie based on the book is screened for free several times during the week.
NCSL caught up with Virginia Delegate Robert Bloxom Jr. (R), who represents District 100, where the Chincoteague Pony Swim takes place.
What does the Chincoteague Pony Swim mean for your district?
It’s twofold. It’s a huge tourist attraction, and the week brings worldwide recognition to Chincoteague and to the Eastern Shore. It’s also a homecoming for people from Chincoteague, who have grown up there and now live and work somewhere else. They come home for the week.
Have you attended the Pony Swim and other festivities?
I’ve been numerous times. The best way to go is by boat. I have my oyster barge, and we take it up and anchor it overnight. We go out and 20, 30, 40 people tie up and they can be on the boat and watch the ponies swim.
Why is it important to have the Pony Swim?
It’s a fundraiser for the volunteer fire company. Volunteers run the carnival. The whole community comes together. The Ladies Auxiliary does pizza, the fire department does the cook shack, the Kiwanis do another booth, and there’s a cake raffle. It’s Americana at its best.
It’s also the heritage. It’s what they’ve done for centuries. The horses came from a Spanish shipwreck, according to legend.
What else is great about your district?
Chincoteague is a mainstay. We have some beautiful towns on the bay side and seaside. We are a peninsula, and you see the sunrise in the morning and sunset in the evening across the water. Cape Charles is a booming tourist town where you see working watermen alongside yachts that come in. The Eastern Shore is the largest hard clam producing region in America, if not the world. If you get steamed hard clams, they might have come from us. Tell everyone to come visit us!
Chincoteague is also part of Virginia Senate District 6, represented by Lynwood W. Lewis (D).
“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events and destinations to the fun facts only the locals know. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelance writer.