Chincoteague Island ponies celebrate 100 years of fame with annual Pony Swim

A match, spark and flame are what began a legacy on the small island of Chincoteague, Virginia, and put the tiny fishing town on the map. Disaster brought prosperity to this town. The first fire happened in 1905 only to be followed by another on a cold September night in 1920. 

The utter destruction that ensued led, according to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC) website, to the formation of the CVFC in 1924. The formation department led to many new costs for the small town of Chincoteague. To help with those costs, the creative minds in the company decided to hold a carnival, which included ponies. 

These ponies are not the   typical mini ponies, but strong, independent ponies that live off the island called Chincoteague. This carnival was the start of something amazing that still, almost one hundred years later, draws thousands to support CVFC and the local communities. Now, the ponies are about to be declared Virginia’s state equine. 

Hunter Leonard, the public relations officer of CVFC, said that the CVFC started caring for the ponies in 1925, and just shy of one hundred years later, they still proudly do this job.

Leonard explained that every year they still do their carnival that was started to raise funds back in 1925, but it has dramatically grown to the point where “about 50,000 people” come to the small, former fishing town. Leonard explained that while the attraction was the carnival and the ponies were just a part of it, now the ponies have become the star of the show.

“We are just thrilled that the ponies have attracted so much attention and that the fire department can benefit from this and the ponies as  well,” Leonard said. 

Ask almost any young horse enthusiast who likes to read, and they probably read the book known as “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry. It follows the story of two children who live on Chincoteague Island in Virginia. The book tells of their adventures on the island, and more importantly, their desire to attain one of the special Chincoteague ponies. The fictional ponies of “Misty of Chincoteague” brought a lot of attention to the real ones living on the island.

They are a local treasure, and this gift is about to spread across the state. CVFC cares for the ponies, according to Leonard, by providing a fenced-in area of roughly 3,000 acres for them to roam and live. While Leonard noted that they are generally allowed to be natural animals, if it is unseasonably cold, they will give them extra food or make sure that their water hasn’t frozen over.  

These ponies are often sold at auctions when mere months old, according to Leonard, which is uncommon in the horse world. Many choose to use these animals for trail riding due to their hardy temperament and acclimation to nature. They are not small ponies as they are almost the size of full horses, but with their easygoing temperament and young adoption age, they are also the perfect friend for any child hoping to get their first pony. 

However, those that remain on the government land will be taken care of with the herd and stay part of the CVFC family. Once a year, CVFC does a Pony Swim that is about 200 yards where people can watch the ponies swim to the island. According to their website, the Pony Swim helps gather the horses from Assateague Island to Chincoteague so they can be auctioned the next day.

Leonard describes the swim as one of his favorite experiences working at CVFC due to the excited crowds and the chance to corral the horses like good old-fashioned cowboys. This is pure entertainment for the crowds and happy chaos for those organizing it, as the CVFC cowboys get the opportunity to herd them through the water, which sometimes means they get to go for a swim with their own horses. 

“It is a joyful chaos,” Leonard said regarding  the festivities. 

Ultimately, CVFC exists to serve the community. It was founded in the early 1900s to keep the community safe from fires, and it still serves that purpose to this day. All of the events they put on not only raise funds for necessary equipment but have transformed the small town into a tourist destination, creating revenue for many small businesses. 

Auld is a feature reporter for the Liberty Champion

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