Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 5, 2010

Pony Penning

Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague did more for the island of Chincoteague than any planned publicity campaign could have. Written in 1947, the book painted such an enthralling picture of life on Chincoteague and neighboring Assateague that millions of people since then have travelled to the islands to experience it for themselves. That Chincoteague’s economy is almost wholly tourism-based is a direct result of this one little children’s book and the dreams it inspired in generations of readers. And the thing that most tourists come to see is the Pony Swim.

Assateague Island is a National Park. Its main attractions are the beach and the wild ponies. Come Pony Penning time (the last Wednesday in July), the ponies rule all. The wild ponies of Assateague roam semi-free (there are fences to keep them off the roads and public beaches) and once a year they are rounded up and swum across the channel to Chincoteague Island. There, a select number of foals are sold, with the proceeds benefiting the Chincoteague Fire Department, which owns the ponies.

So, once a year, thousands of people (they expected 40,000 this year) flock to tiny Chincoteague to see the ponies swim from Assateague to Chincoteague. Since I am living on Chincoteague this year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join the fun!

Six a.m. saw the sun, me, and my mother rise. Slathered with sunscreen and bug spray (Chincoteague mosquitoes have carried off small children and pets), we arrived at Pony Swim Lane, where the ponies make landfall. To get close to the landing site, we slogged through a marsh composed of sucking black mud and biting grasses. A fellow adventurer, apparently not warned against wearing flip flops, lost her shoe entirely. Another, although clad in sneakers, ended up fishing his shoe out of the muck. We gained the other side of the marsh with all shoes accounted for.

Then we waited. The sun got hot (but thankfully not too bad), and the only bugs that bothered us were the grasshoppers – particularly the one that leaped from a stalk onto my chest. He was like something from Alien – a huge black creepy thing that sprang at me and grew larger and larger in my view like a monster in a 3D movie. I returned him post-haste to the grass.

We arrived at 7 a.m. The ponies swam at noon. The crowd grew and grew, and we all shared stories of where we came from – Kansas, Pennsylvania, Norway. People lent helping hands to those who needed it, sharing water, towels and food with those who had arrived unprepared – or those unlucky enough to have taken a tumble in the mud. The comraderie reminded me of the many hours I had spent hanging around stage doors at Monkees concerts – a shared passion that for the moment surmounted any differences we might have.

Noon arrived, the warning flare went up, the crowd cheered, and the ponies were in the water! The crowd surged forward, pressing to see the horses swimming and the famed “saltwater cowboys” wrangling them across the channel, in between two lines of spectator boats. In a little over four minutes, the first pony made landfall. 50-plus mares, foals and stallions sorted themselves out and fell to eating, resting after the swim. The 85th Annual Pony Swim was over.

I am grateful to have experienced this wonderful event and to have seen the wild ponies up close. The reality lived up to the dreams conjured in Misty of Chincoteague (although I did not buy my own pony at the auction the next day). As a writer, I could not help but marvel at the power of story. As long as children keep reading that book, they will want to come see the ponies, and Chincoteague will reap the benefits. The Misty legacy lives on.

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