Off the coast of northern Virginia is a unique beach resort area called Chincoteague Island.
An idyllic enclave of Virginia's southern hospitality, Chincoteague offers all the elements of a perfect sand-and-surf vacation spot: boating, fishing, kayaking, crabbing, swimming and safe, pristine beaches. While vacationers treasure the area for these features, it's not the beachy perfection that draws the largest number of visitors each year. It's the ponies.
Chincoteague ponies are a very special breed of wild horses that live along the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge on nearby Assateague Island. Although the entire Island is federally owned, Assateague is split by a fence at the Maryland/Virginia state line, with a herd of around 150 ponies living on each side of the fence. On the Maryland side, the horses are treated as wild animals with no more support than other species on the island. In contrast, Virginia's ponies are owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and they have a very unique and special way of managing the herd size: the annual Wild Pony Swim!
Every July since 1925, the wild horses are rounded up by the local fireman and guided across the Assateague Channel. It takes about 3 – 5 minutes for 150 or so ponies to swim across the salt-water channel. After the horses are rested from the swim, they are paraded into the Fireman's Carnival. A pony auction takes place the next day. When the festivities are done, the horses that were not rehomed in the auction swim back to Assateague.
The Annual Pony Swim at Chincoteague is now an island tradition and receives lots of publicity, which translates into huge crowds. Approximately 50,000 spectators come to Chincoteague to observe and take part in the Pony Swim events. This year, the swim takes place on Wednesday July 30. For more information, visit the Chincoteague Chamber website.
If you would love to view the wild ponies but you're not much for big crowds, choose another time before or after the Pony Swim Day and take a pony viewing tour. There are several great companies that provide kayak or boat excursions which get you up close and personal to the wild horses. You may not see them swimming, but you will observe them in their natural island habitat. You might even see dolphins or a bald eagle.
There are so many things that make a visit to Chincoteague Island a memorable trip. The sand, the surf and the ponies are sure to stay with you for a long time.