Pony Penning

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Pony Penning
Chincoteague ponies arriving on Chincoteague after swimming the channel
Genreauctions, carnivals
FrequencyAnnually, on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July
Location(s)Chincoteague Island, Virginia
CountryUnited States
Years active99
EstablishedJuly 1924
Organised byChincoteague Volunteer Fire Department
SponsorChincoteague Chamber of Commerce

Pony Penning, sometimes known as Pony Penning Days or Pony Swim, is an annual event held in Chincoteague, Virginia on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. The Chincoteague Fire Department conducts the event, which consists of a pony swim on Wednesday and a pony auction on Thursday. For the pony swim, the Saltwater Cowboys round up feral Chincoteague ponies from Assateague Island and drive them across the Assateague Channel to Veteran's Memorial Park on Chincoteague Island.[1] The ponies swim across the channel during slack tide, when the water has minimal tidal movement.[1] Once on Chincoteague Island, the Saltwater Cowboys herd the ponies to pens on the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds where some of the foals are auctioned off on Thursday.[2]

History and background[edit]

There are several theories about how the Chincoteague ponies came to exist on Assateague Island. The National Park Service, which controls the ponies on the Maryland side of Assateague, claims that the horses were brought to the island in the 17th century;[3] however, leaders of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the ponies on the Virginia side of Assateague,[3] claim that the horses are descended from Spanish horses who swam to the island from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon off the Virginia coast on their way to Peru in the 16th century. At some point after the ponies arrived on the island in the 16th or 17th century, pony penning began as a way for locals to claim, brand, and harness the wild herds.[4]

Prior to 1924[edit]

By the 1700s, the pony penning was an annual event and unclaimed animals were branded or marked for ownership by groups of settlers.[4] The first written description of the pony penning appeared in 1835, and by 1885, the event had become a festival day. The event consisted of two days of horse and sheep roundups on Assateague and Chincoteague Islands. Over time, the sheep population diminished and the pony population grew and eventually sheep penning was halted. In 1909, the last Wednesday and Thursday of July were designated as the annual days for pony penning. The penning took place on both islands, until a wealthy farmer purchased a significant portion of Assateague Island, which forced many settlers to move to Chincoteague Island. This necessitated a change in the pony penning format, and by 1923, all parts of pony penning except for the actual roundup had moved to Chincoteague Island. The ponies were transported by truck for the first two years after the move, before the annual swim was begun in 1925.[5]

1924 to present[edit]

In 1922, a causeway was completed that connected the Chincoteague Island to the Virginia mainland. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was established in the same year, after a pair of fires ravaged the island. In 1924, the first official Pony Penning Day was held, where the foals were auctioned at $25–50 each to raise money for fire equipment.[1][2] The fire department owns the herd, and holds a grazing permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which allows the fire department to let the horses graze on the Virginia side of Assateague Island.[4] The permit allows the fire department to maintain a herd of up to 150 horses.[4] In 1927, the crowd of spectators was estimated to be approximately 25,000. The event was popularized by the book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, published in 1947.[6][7] It now usually draws from 40,000 to 50,000 spectators.[1][8]

Since 1924, Pony Penning Day has been an annual event, with the exception of 1942, 1943, 2020, and 2021.[9] The event was cancelled during 1942 and 1943 due to World War II, and in 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the ponies were still rounded up, but were held on Assateague rather than making the swim to Chincoteague, and the foals were sold in an online auction[10][8] rather than in the traditional live auction at the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds.

Saltwater Cowboys[edit]

Saltwater cowboys driving ponies to Chincoteague Carnival Grounds

Members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department known as "Saltwater Cowboys" oversee the annual pony swim.[6] In the early years of the swim, there were not enough riders on Chincoteague to help with the swim, so Saltwater Cowboys were recruited from the mainland.[11] There are about 40-55 Saltwater Cowboys, many of whom have held the position for most of their lives.[11][4][12] Positions as a Saltwater Cowboy are highly sought after, and receiving one is considered an honor.[13] As of 2019, some of the cowboys were third generation.[13] The oldest Saltwater Cowboy is Jack Brittingham, who was 86 years old in 2019.[11]

The Saltwater Cowboys care for the wild ponies throughout the year, rounding up the ponies three times a year to vaccinate and perform check-ups on the horses.[11][14][15] Some of the proceeds from the annual pony auction are used to care for the ponies.[16][15] During spring roundups, the Saltwater Cowboys also release buyback ponies from the previous year's auctions.[17] In the winter of 2018, the Saltwater Cowboys had to euthanize seven ponies suffering from "swamp cancer," a fungal infection.[18][19] After the loss of these ponies, three mares with ancestral roots on Assateague were donated to the Saltwater Cowboys in order to help maintain the herd population.[20][21]

Roundup and beach walk[edit]

The Saltwater Cowboys drive the ponies down the beach on Assateague Island, prior to the pony swim
Chincoteague ponies in the Southern Corral, prior to the annual swim

Prior to the swim, the Saltwater Cowboys round up the north and south herds on the island and put them into corrals. On the Monday before the pony swim, the northern herd ponies leave the northern corral at daybreak and are walked approximately five miles along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean to join the ponies from the south herd at the southern corral.[11] On the Tuesday before the swim, the herd is evaluated and mares in the late stages of pregnancy and those with very young foals are removed from the herd to be trailered between the islands. Ponies that are not healthy enough to make the swim are also trailered. During this time, the Saltwater Cowboys also select which foals will be "buyback" ponies, ponies designated and auctioned to return and replenish the herd.

Pony Swim[edit]

Coast Guard ensuring the safety of the public during the 2014 swim

The pony swim occurs on Wednesday between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., depending on slack tide.[10][22] The exact time of the swim is announced the day before the swim.[12] It lasts approximately five-ten minutes.[9][23] Approximately 40,000 people gather on the shores to watch the swim from Veterans Memorial Park or Pony Swim Lane.[12][24] Usually, a television screen is located at Veterans Memorial Park so that those in the back of the crowd can still see the swim.[24]

The Saltwater Cowboys accompany the ponies into the channel, and then volunteers in boats called "scowboys" assist any ponies, especially foals, who may have a hard time with the crossing.[9] The first foal to reach the shore is named King or Queen Neptune.[22]

Ponies during the 2010 swim

During the swim, some lactating mares become affected with hypocalcemia, which is treated by on-site veterinarians.[25] The ponies rest for a short period while they are examined by veterinarians and are then driven along Ridge Road on a parade route to the Volunteer Fire Department Fairgrounds by the Saltwater Cowboys.[16][22] Many observers line the route, helping to keep the ponies on the road. At the fairgrounds, ponies are put into corrals and are again evaluated by veterinarians and potential bidders. Foals old enough to be separated from their mothers are auctioned the next day.[9]

The majority of the ponies, including any mares with young foals, are returned to Assateague on Friday.[9][23] The northern herd is trailered back by the Saltwater Cowboys, and the southern herd swims back. These ponies leave the fairgrounds in the morning and then swim back across the channel by noon, guided by the Saltwater Cowboys.[16]

Volunteer Fireman's Carnival[edit]

The Volunteer Fireman's Carnival begins prior to the pony swim and continues after the swim into early August.[6] After the swim, the ponies are driven by the Saltwater Cowboys to the carnival grounds, where they are corralled and can be observed by the Saltwater Cowboys and potential bidders. In 2018, a pony was chasing a second pony when the second pony slipped and slid into a fence. The pony broke its neck and had to be euthanized.[26] Following this event, animal rights group PETA called for future events to be cancelled. Volunteer fire department personnel responded to say that the death was a "freak accident" and that future events would not be cancelled.[26]

Auction of foals[edit]

Pony Auction in 2008

The annual auction is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and is also used to maintain the herd size.[23][8] Since the permit granted to the fire department by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows them to graze a herd of up to 150 horses, the department uses the auction as a way of keeping the numbers within the limits of the permit since approximately seventy foals are born each year.[4] The auction is conducted by auctioneer Tim Jennings.[8][27] On the Thursday following the swim, approximately sixty foals are auctioned off at the Volunteer Fire Department fairgrounds. As of 2019, more than 1,297 ponies had been auctioned.[16][28] Items such as photos and prints are also auctioned.[15] Typically, the proceeds from one designated foal are donated to a local charity.[16] Anyone who attends in the auction can participate and registration is not required. Transportation home for auctioned foals must be approved by the pony committee. Ponies are typically picked up by 5 p.m. on the Friday after the auction, but occasionally younger foals must be picked up in the fall.

The Feather Fund is a charity which helps children to purchase ponies at the auction.[16][29] The charity was created in 2003 in memory of Carollynn Suplee, who used to attend the auction to help children buy ponies until she died from cancer.[16] The charity believes that raising a foal helps to teach children life lessons.[16]

In 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cancellation of the pony swim, the auction was held in an online event on SportHorseAuctions.com, which was owned by longtime Chincoteague auctioneer Tim Jennings.[10] Photos of the to-be-auctioned foals were posted online along with relevant information about the foal. While usually a one-day event, the 2020 auction lasted a week.[10]

Buyback ponies[edit]

Several ponies each year are purchased under "buyback" conditions, where the bidder donates the money to the fire department but allows the pony to be released back onto Assateague Island in order to help maintain the population.[16][28][30] Buyback ponies usually receive the highest bids.[15]

Auction records[edit]

The average price paid for a pony has steadily increased over the years. Between 2016 and 2017, the average winning bids increased by 30 percent. In 2018, the average winning bid increased by 24 percent from the previous year.[16] The highest ever recorded bid for an individual pony was $28,250 in 2020.

The 2020 auction, which was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in $388,000 of total sales, breaking the previous total sales record by more than $100,000.[15] The records for highest bid and average cost per pony were also broken.[15] Generally, the highest bid is for a buyback pony.[15]

Year Ponies sold Average cost High bid Low bid Total sales Notes Reference
1999 86 $1,620 $4,200 $800
2000 84 $2,060 $7,500 $1,300 $173,085 [28]
2001 85 $1,961 $10,500 $1000 $166,725
2002 89 $1,818 $7,800 $950 $161,800 [28]
2003 71 $1798.59 $6,600 $1,000 $127,700
2004 74 $1618.24 $4000 $850 $119,750
2005 66 $2255.30 $8000 $900 $148,850
2006 78 $2150.64 $7500 $350 $167,750 Low bid was a 3-year-old pony [28]
2007 73 $2,442.47 $17,500 $700 $178,300 Average cost and high bid matched previous record; new total sales record [28]
2008 74 $1,413.85 $9,500 $400 $104,625
2009 70 $1,344.29 $11,700 $500 $94,100
2010 59 $1,310 $8,100 $375 $77,275
2011 69 $1,442 $6,700 $450 $99,500
2012 67 $1,436 $7,000 $400 $96,252
2013 55 $2,000.00 $12,000 $650 $113,975
2014 54 $2,772 $21,000 $700 $149,700 New record for average cost and high bid [28]
2015 61 $2,779.94 $25,000 $500 $169,576 New record for average cost and high bid [28][16]
2016 57 $2,659 $11,000 $550 $151,550 [28][16]
2017 62 $3,386 $15,000 $1,100 $209,900 [28][31]
2018 53 $4,310 $20,000 $1,000 $228,400 $1,800 [28][31]
2019 57 $4,767 $17,000 $1,400 $271,700 New record for average cost and total sales [28][16][31]
2020 68 $5,705 $28,250 $388,000 Auction was held online due to COVID-19 pandemic. New record for average cost, high bid, and total sales. [15][31]
2021 75 $5,559 $25,500 $2,400 $416,950 New record for low bid and total sales [31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Chincoteague Beachcomber. "Pony Penning Wed., Thurs.", July 25, 2008, page 2.
  2. ^ a b Gooldrup, Harley. Chincoteague Beachcomber. "How did the ponies get to the island?", July 25, 2008, page 5.
  3. ^ a b "Assateague's Wild Horses". U.S. National Park Service. Retrieved June 10, 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Daddio, Jess (June 2015). "Saltwater Cowboys: True Grit of the East". Blue Ridge Outdoors. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  5. ^ Harris & Langrish, page 80.
  6. ^ a b c "Annual pony swim set for July 30". WTOP. July 1, 2014. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  7. ^ Pointer, Jack (May 27, 2019). "Virginia woman immortalized in children's book 'Misty of Chincoteague' dies at 81". WTOP. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  8. ^ a b c d Panatta, Kyleigh (May 18, 2020). "Chincoteague pony penning canceled, moves to online auction". ABC News. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d e Dutson, Judith (2005). Storey's Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America. Storey Publishing. ISBN 1-58017-613-5.
  10. ^ a b c d Fraley, Jason (July 29, 2020). "Chincoteague holds virtual pony auction as island adapts to historic pandemic". WTOP. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  11. ^ a b c d e Stump, Brice (October 23, 2019). "Meet the toughest, oldest of the Saltwater Cowboys". The Salisbury Independent. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  12. ^ a b c "Chincoteague Pony Swim". Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  13. ^ a b Honosky, Sarah (May 23, 2019). "Chincoteague 'saltwater cowboy' from Bedford County mourned by community". News & Advance. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  14. ^ "Annual Chincoteague Island Pony Swim canceled for the first time since WWII". ABC 8 News. May 18, 2020. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Velazquez, Rose (July 31, 2020). "Pony auction shatters records with $380,000-plus spent in online version". Delmarva. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Rentsch, Julia (July 25, 2019). "Chincoteague Pony Auction stirs up emotions, memories". Delmarva. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  17. ^ Croskell, Chapman (April 20, 2020). "Chincoteague ponies get wellness check at annual spring roundup". Delmarva. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  18. ^ "Virginia 'swamp cancer' prompts concern for NC wild horses". ABC 8 News. January 11, 2019. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  19. ^ "'Swamp cancer' kills 3rd island pony this year in Virginia". ABC 8 News. December 17, 2018. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  20. ^ "3 mares donated to boost Chincoteague pony population". ABC 8 News. December 10, 2018. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  21. ^ "Anonymous donor gives ponies to Virginia island herd". ABC 8 News. March 13, 2018. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  22. ^ a b c "Crowds cheer ponies swimming to Chincoteague, Virginia". WTOP. July 24, 2019. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  23. ^ a b c "Pony Penning Day on Virginia's Chincoteague Island". July 25, 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  24. ^ a b "Chincoteague Island Pony Swim Shuttle". Chincoteague. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  25. ^ Osborne, Malinda (2009). "Chincoteague pony swim poses unique challenges for local veterinarian". Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 233 (9): 1377. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011.
  26. ^ a b "PETA calls for end to pony swim after fairgrounds death". ABC 8 News. August 1, 2018. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  27. ^ WAVY Web Staff (May 18, 2020). "Chincoteague's pony swim canceled for first time since World War II; pony auction to be conducted online". ABC 8 News. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Ramirez, Paula (July 25, 2019). "How much does a Chincoteague pony cost?". Delmarva. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  29. ^ "3 girls overcome health, dashed chances to own Chincoteague ponies". Delmarva. July 25, 2019. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  30. ^ "Official 2018 Chincoteague Island Pony Swim Guide". Chincoteague Island, Virginia First Official Tourist page. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  31. ^ a b c d e "Auction Price History". Chincoteague.com. Retrieved 11 January 2022.

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