Chincoteague Island Pony Swim
Chincoteague Island Pony Swim
by Ann Jamieson
The local (Island) Theatre plays Misty of Chincoteague. Saltwater Cowboys parade down the streets. Tens of thousands of people ply a small Virginia backwater.
All of the hotels are sold out. Why?
It’s the famous Chincoteague pony swim of course!
The Schauder family, owners of Country Lane Farm in Greenwich, Connecticut, had wanted to go for years. “It was something we always talked about doing because we had all read the book. We were all curious about it,” says Christina.
But horse show families go to horse shows, and Country Lane Farm was always at a horse show in Cape Cod when the pony swim took place.
This year, after a full summer of horse shows and two weeks of competition at the Vermont Summer Festival, everyone was tired, and needed a change. Christina made the commitment, and called in reservations for a Chincoteague hotel.
Fourteen in total: Fred and Christina Schauder, their three daughters, Emma, Lindsay, and Avery, several students and Lisa, who was visiting from Austria for a month, made the trip to Virginia.
The pony swim takes place the last week in July during the Chincoteague Fireman’s Carnival. Ponies swim from their home on Assateague Island preserve to Chincoteague Island, where they are examined and then auctioned off to prevent the herd (which is maintained at a level of about 150 ponies) from becoming too large. Since the Maryland/Virginia border intersects Assateague Island, the ponies are governed by the National Park Service in Maryland while the Saltwater Cowboys, aka The Chincoteague Fire Department, maintain the Virginia herd.
The first day of the event takes place on Assateague. The ponies are rounded up and corralled, and visitors come to get their first look at them.
The pony swim is no small deal. Over 30,000 people annually attend this event. “It’s unique. People love it; they really get into it,” says Christina. She loved the 65 square-mile Assateague preserve, pronouncing it “very peaceful and beautiful.”
On the second day, the official swim takes place. Only young, healthy horses make their way across. Older ones, and those that are too young, are ferried across in trailers.
“We didn’t know exactly what time the swim would take place,” says Christina. “It has to happen during a “slack” tide, (a period of about half an hour when there is no current). So they told us it would happen between 10 and 11:30 a.m.”
Competition for viewing room is fierce, and many attendees are out lining the landing area by five a.m. To signal the start, the Coast Guard sets off a flare, and the ponies splash into the water.
Although the Country Lane kids didn’t jump out of bed at the crack of dawn, the girls were intrepid enough to wade through deep mud and secure themselves prime spots at the end of Pony Swim Lane, where the ponies would arrive. Christina had taken them shopping the first day, and she says, “They were all thankful that they had purchased water shoes the day before, proclaiming it the best $10 ever spent!”
The spot was perfect, right where the ponies came in. Sixty-two ponies made the swim: pintos, bays, chestnuts, duns, palominos, greys…and the girls were able to touch them as they came by.
“What you saw at first was just dots in the water,” explained the girls. “As they got closer, you could see their little heads above the water. And then they were close enough and we could touch them,”
After reaching the Chincoteague side, the ponies were put in corrals again so they could rest, and then paraded down Chincoteague Street to the corrals behind the Fairgrounds by the Salt Water Cowboys.
Here potential buyers could view the horses and decide which ones they wanted to bid on. “There was a lot of action there! A lot of playing and fighting going on,” remarked Christina.
Those marked with orange were “buy-backs” and are bid on to raise money for the herd, but not bought. Judged the best ones to breed, they go back to the island.
The Schauder’s youngest daughter Avery got to choose which pony they would buy. She was very definite about her choice, saying that a small chestnut foal “spoke to her.” She also noticed that the chestnut was keeping close company with a palomino foal.
Real estate for auction viewing was as hotly contested as spots for viewing the swim. Christina noted, “People chain down chairs to the spot they want, and the bleachers are completely covered in towels and markers to hold a space.”
The auction starts at 8 a.m. The Schauder’s pony didn’t come up for bidding until number 52.
“After bidding,” Christina explains, “You have to pay immediately.” While Fred got on the line with their vet, Dr. Cook of New England Equine, Christina was still at the auction corral. A palomino foal came up, the palomino that had been with Avery’s chestnut. As a student’s mother had said that she would go in on a pony if they came across a palomino, Christina bid on that one too. And won. Now they had two ponies.
“What do you mean you got another one?” was Fred’s reaction. Dr. Cook, still on the phone, said, “Christina get in your car and drive away!”
The experience was a hit with the whole Country Lane group. “The girls embraced everything. They were excited about it all. It was such a different experience with horses,” declared Christina. And although the girls put up with heat, humidity and mud to watch a brief swim, they all agreed it was well worth it.
The foals had not been handled at all, and of course were not halter broken. The Saltwater Cowboys literally picked them up and placed them in the Schauder’s trailer!
Back at Country Lane Farm, the foals learned quickly. “All of the girls that were at the swim,” notes
Christina, “feel that they are a part of the foals’ lives. They’ve learned to care for them, to break them. The babies are really smart and very sweet. Avery did a really good job of picking them,” Christina says proudly.
Eying their future, Christina adds, “The ponies are good movers, they do clean flying changes. And they like to jump poles on the ground! I felt bad taking them away from their freedom, but they’re really getting love here, and good care. Who knows what they’ll become?”
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