Wild Ponies Go For A Swim

A shining example of the effect of horses on some little girls, Haley Scott stood in murky water up to her neck to get a good view as a herd of wild ponies swam across a narrow channel from a barrier island to Chincoteague, Virginia.

"This was our first time here, and it was worth waiting four hours," explains 11-year-old from Massachusetts. Wearing a silver pony on a chain around her neck, she added, "It was cool to see them."

Like many others, Haley wanted to see the swim after reading the novel that made the event famous, Misty of Chincoteague. The 1947 book by Marguerite Henry is about a brother and sister who want to own a wild pony and her filly.

Wednesday's swim marked the 74th time the town's volunteer fire department, which owns the herd and will auction some of the ponies in an annual fund-raiser, ran the event. The roundup and swim date back more than 100 years, says Roe Terry, a fire department spokesman. The tradition has been kept alive by the fire company, formed in the 1920s after two fires burned much of the town, now home to 3,500 people.

About 130 ponies started the 80-yard swim at 9:35 a.m. and reached land five minutes later as crowds watching along the marshy shore and in boats clapped and cheered. An estimated 50,000 tourists were in the Eastern Shore town, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

Volunteers known as "Saltwater Cowboys" rounded up the small, stocky ponies on the neighboring barrier island of Assateague last weekend.

"We're doing something that's a family-oriented thing, and a lot of us feel good about that," firefighter Ed Moran says. "There's not too much left of that in this country."

The swim was done at slack tide, the period between high and low tides when the current is still. The ponies then rested for about an hour, munching on marsh grasses as tourists and film crews snapped their pictures.

Then they were herded through the streets to the carnival grounds and penned for the auction, which keeps the herd to about 150 animals - the maximum number that can be supported on grazing lands in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague.

About 20 ponies too young to swim, and their mares, were driven over to Chincoteague in trailers on Tuesday.

Legend has it that the animals are descended from ponies that survived a 16th-century wreck of a Spanish galleon just offshore. Another theory is that Colonial settlers hid their horses on Assateague to avoid paying taxes on livestock.

Chincoteague ponies only grow up to 5 feet tall and have thicker coats than other horses. They come in a variety of colors, with paint ponies - those with large splashes of more than one color - the most prized.