Spectators from across the country don their waders and overalls. They brave mud and mosquitos as they muscle for rank and a seat at the front of the marsh. As early as 4 a.m. they began arriving for the 97th annual Chincoteague Island Pony Swim. Through tall grass and deep water, saltwater cowboys maneuver almost 70 foals across the wide channel to Chincoteague Island. The ponies, too small to be considered horses, are herded and branded to identify growth and decline in the local population.
Shortly after 9 a.m., a flare is shot from a Coast Guard boat, signaling to the group of horseback riders known as the Saltwater Cowboys that it’s time to bring the ponies across the channel. Most cowboys are volunteers at the local fire department, and ride alongside the ponies at slack tide to ensure a successful voyage.
Up to their necks in the murky waters of the Assateague Channel, ponies motor across in a pandemonium that brings cheers from eager spectators.
Nearly 65 foals will be auctioned after the swim to reduce the population of the horses because of an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the population.
There are several legends about how the ponies came to Assateague. One version is that a Spanish shipwreck carrying the ponies washed ashore. Another says they were left on the island by farmers who used the island as a natural fence to keep the ponies contained.