This article, the third in a three-part series begun by Daniel Hammer in Spring 2005, was reported from Chincoteague’s 80th Annual Pony Swim and Auction, held July 27-28 2005. Most information for this story derives from personal observations of the author.
Between late summer thunderstorms, in the balmy midnight air, a mare bore her first colt in captivity. On this hot July night, miles from her home, a white fence and the silhouettes of volunteer firefighters replaced marsh grass, pine forests and sand dunes — a view the mare would have seen had she given birth on any previous evening.
It wasn’t twenty-four hours after the newborn entered the world that the firefighters asked him to perform before an audience of thousands. Two men paraded the baby horse around a dusty arena, as the auctioneer took bids on the colt. The foal went for $4,400. A sad sound came from behind the arena — the call of a mother horse to her baby.
As luck would have it, this foal became one of the small number — usually less than ten percent — of auctioned foals who are returned to their mothers. Through a buy-back plan established by the local fire company, the buyer is deemed a sponsor, and receives title to mare and foal, who are then returned to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. But due to an agreement reached with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1946, most ponies cannot return home. The fire department is only permitted to graze 150 horses on the refuge. The auction provides a venue to sell the excess animals, who would otherwise be counted as threats to the area’s natural ecological balance.
The selling of the foals took place at the annual pony swim and auction, made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 story, Misty of Chincoteague. Proceeds from the auction’s sponsorship and sales help purchase firefighting equipment, and also provide hoof trimmings, vaccinations, and de-worming treatments for the horses on the refuge. More than 40,000 visitors attended.
“It’s $300,000 for a new fire truck and $150,000 for a new ambulance; we never make enough,” said Roe Terry, a volunteer fireman and event coordinator. The department makes an average of $150,000 from selling the foals, with additional money raised from visitor contributions.
Locals line the streets selling stuffed ponies, hand-made t-shirts, and other hometown crafts. Hotels are booked full; for on these two July days, more tourists flock to the town than visit the island throughout the rest of the year.
On the day before the auction, fire company staff force the ponies to swim the channel from Assategue Island, home of the National Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, to Chincoteague, Virginia, where the auction takes place. Firefighters perform the roundups and manage the auction of the legendary ponies. For two days, the group of wild ponies turn local fire fighters into small-town heroes.
As families slog through the muddy Veterans Memorial Park to witness the 80th annual swim, firefighters, some afoot, others on horseback, do their best to control both the horses and the crowd.
“We got a lot of pissed off ponies coming through here,” shouted Terry. “Stand back, the stallions are going to be separated from the mares, they’re going to be mad. Step in there and you’ll get your head kicked in.” To prevent such calamities, Terry and the other firefighters work with a group called the Salt Water Cowboys. The Cowboys, who come from all over the United States, dress the part. They ride tall on their horses and crack their whips to show who’s in control, as the ponies rather listlessly pull themselves out of the water after the 500-yard forced swim.
The press photographs and pets the horses for about 45 minutes after their arrival. Despite the dramatic tough talk and actions of the cowboy’s their ponies appear to be used to people. Throughout the year they are shod and handled by veterinarians; and each year they see more than 1.5 million people come to visit to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
The fire company has no problem letting the crowd get close to the horses once the auction begins. After spending one last night with their herd, on Thursday morning, the foals are separated from their mothers and put on display for hopeful bidders.
The auctioneer barks to the crowd: “They make show ponies, pony club mounts, best friends for life. Put your hand up when you see a pony you like.” Two burly firefighters circle a three-month old colt. Tagged A-87, the small chestnut is the first to go that day. As one man holds the colt’s tail tightly between his legs for optimal grip, another staffer walks on the animal’s other side. The young horse’s shaky stance doesn’t deter the bidder, who offers $900 within two minutes.
Hoping for a new best friend, children lean anxiously forward to get a glimpse of each pony entering the gated arena.
Anyone able to pay about $800 to $10,500 can have a horse. The firefighters conduct no preliminary background checks or interviews to determine a buyer's ability to properly support a horse's well-being; the legendary foal becomes an item to be bought and sold. Some owners even breed their own Chincoteague ponies. The Chincoteague National Pony Association now has 187 purebred Chincoteagues on record.
The ancestors of these horses roamed freely on Assateague for 300 years before pony penning began. Eighty years after the first auction took place, they are treated as pets. Over the years, through events such as the pony swim and auction, the free-living status of these ponies has become illusory.
For more background on the Chincoteague ponies, please read "Chincoteague Ponies: Wildlife on the Brink," Part One of our three-part series.