Tourists return yearly to view Virginia’s saltwater cowboys complete the annual pony roundup and swim from Assateague Island to nearby Chincoteague Island. The resort island of Chincoteague is located along Virginia’s eastern shore where a foal auction is held annually to raise money for the Chincoteague Island Volunteer Fire Department and to support the pony herd. The fire department owns the ponies located on the Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island.
The majority of Virginia’s saltwater cowboys serve in the capacity of volunteer firefighter at Chincoteague Island. Each year at the end of the July, the volunteer firefighters change into the role of saltwater cowboy. The cowboys herd the ponies on Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. The roundup is an all volunteer wet and wild effort.
The first foal to cross each year is awarded the name King or Queen Neptune and is raffled in a drawing at the carnival grounds. After a 45 minute rest, the ponies, including King or Queen Neptune, are paraded down Main Street to the carnival grounds. The foal auction takes place the following morning.
The auctioning of the foals keeps the size of the herds from growing too large for the island. Three to five of the foals are designated as “buy back foals.” These foals are auctioned, but then returned to the herd of Assateague Island to live out his/her life and replenish the herd. The proceeds from the sale of one pony each year is given to a regional charity.
The pony swim takes place during a time of day between tides called slack tide. This is the safest time to move the ponies because during slack tide there is no current. Slack tide is only a 30 minute window that can occur from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. The swim takes place just south of Memorial Park on the east side of the island.
In addition to the annual swim, the duties of the saltwater cowboys include rounding the ponies up twice a year for hoof care, vaccinations and worming. The cowboys ride in cracking bullwhips high in the air over the heads of the ponies to direct the ponies toward one of two holding pens. Some of the ponies will automatically run in the direction of the pens, while other strong spirited ponies will make every effort to escape the roundup.
There are two herds on the island, a southern herd and a northern herd. The northern herd is double the size of its southern counterpart. Each herd is gathered into separate holding pens. The cowboys make sure each pony is well fed and drinks plenty of water the night before medical attention.
Chincoteague Island became permanently altered from a sleepy fishing village into a major tourist destination after the release of Twentieth Century Fox’s movie Misty of Chincoteague in 1961. The movie was based on the story of the Chincoteague Island ponies. Approximately 50,000 visitors attend the pony roundup annually boosting the economy of the island.