By Betsa Marsh
Shaggy manes float in the water as cowboys herd bobbing withers toward shore. From saltgrass to sandy bank, this can only be Pony Penning Days on Chincoteague Island.
Penning is a centuries-old custom on Virginia’s Chincoteague. One legend has the wild horses as descendants of mustangs that escaped from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon. Other historians insist that the horses were put here by ranchers who wanted to avoid taxes and fencing laws.
For livestock owners, penning was a way to claim, brand and break their loose herds. It was an annual event by the 1700s, surrounded by feasting and festivity.
Whatever their origins, the horses have been part of the wildlife and mythology of Chincoteague nearly since its British settlement in 1671.
Grazing on the barrier island’s low-quality diet of saltmeadow hay and beach grass, the horses grow to a short stature that makes them look like ponies. The extra water they drink to offset the salt gives them their distinctive bloated look.
The Saltwater Cowboys of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the Virginia herd, drive the horses across the narrowest part of Assateague Channel at “slack” tide, without a current. They crown the first pony ashore King or Queen Neptune, and a lucky raffle winner takes the royal home that afternoon.
The horses rest for about an hour, then the cowboys parade them through town to the Carnival Grounds on Main Street. They’re corralled as the excitement builds for the next day’s auction.
A veterinarian, who monitors the herd year-round, certifies that the ponies are healthy to head anywhere in the U.S., and the bidding begins. In the first auction, in 1925, a male horse sold for $75, a female for $90. In 2016, 57 ponies sold at an average cost of $2,659.
All the proceeds go to the fire department for equipment and training. Last year’s total sales were $151,550.
The day after the auction, the thinned herd, limited to 150, swims home to its refuge.
If you can’t buy a pony and take it home, just stop by the Pony Centre on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday evenings for the Chincoteague Pony Show. Veterans of the swim and Misty descendants perform with drill-team precision. “It’s a celebration,” horse manager Kendy Allen said, “of what these ponies can do.”
The juxtaposition of a resort island with preserved wilderness just a bridge away makes for a both-sides-now vacation. Kayakers can paddle in the calmer waters of Chesapeake Bay, where they might spot Sika deer and foxes, or challenge the boisterous Atlantic. Birders stream in to see great blue herons, snowy egrets and piping plovers, a threatened species. The wildlife refuge was created in 1943 to save dwindling wetlands for migratory birds and to protect them from poaching for food and feathers.
Seafood lovers can savor dueling feasts, sampling the bounty of the Bay one meal and the Atlantic’s brinier catch the next, all along the Virginia Oyster Trail. “We’re fortunate we’re so close to the ocean,” said Tommy Clark, who owns Toms Cove Aqua Farm and Don’s Seafood restaurant in town. “If you’ve ever been swimming in the ocean and get a little bit of salt water in your mouth, you know that taste is so fresh and clean.”
Travelers on the educational tour at Clark’s aqua farm follow the oysters from seed to nursery, then through harvest and processing. Locally famous, Clark’s oysters are also sliced open at the oyster bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station.
Inspired by the aqua farm, travelers can try their hands at clamming and crabbing, and beachcombers are welcome to take up to a bushel of shells—uninhabited, please—daily. Many zoom to Toms Cove right after a storm for the best pickings.
Out of the water, hikers like to explore the 1867 Assateague Lighthouse, open for climbing in the summer. The lighthouse’s original Fresnel lens glitters at the Museum of Chincoteague Island. It once shone more than 20 miles out to sea.
After a full day of sun and surf, it’s back to the tiny town of Chincoteague, just in time to settle back with oysters and crab cakes as the sun dips into the Chincoteague Channel. For dessert, maybe a bite of the island’s famous pony tails, a long tassel of saltwater taffy. Or a mighty scoop of Java Jolt ice cream at Island Creamery.
Travelers steeped in Misty lore can book the Marguerite Henry room at the clapboard Miss Molly’s Inn, where the author stayed while researching the excitement of pony-penning days. Today, Henry’s room is posh comfort with a king-size bed, front-porch rockers and afternoon tea.
After the frenzy of pony penning days, rocking on the front porch with a Virginia sweet tea may be just the thing. On Friday, after the foals head home with their new owners, the thinned herd of Chincoteague ponies swims back home to the wildlife refuge. There, the rest of the year travelers like us make their pilgrimages to catch a glimpse of those shaggy manes and switching tails, near or far.
When you go
The Virginia Eastern Shore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier islands on the East Coast. For Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, call 757-336-6161 or visit chincoteaguechamber.com.
The 92nd Annual Pony Swim is set for July 26, with the auction of foals July 27. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s Carnival will take over the fairgrounds on Fridays and Saturdays, from June 23–July 29.
Tommy Clark celebrates the vast oyster shell pile at his Toms Cove Aqua Farms. The farm offers educational tours for travelers. Betsa Marsh photo
Harvesters bring in the bounty at Toms Cove Aqua Farms. Betsa Marsh photo
Travelers can book author Marguerite Henry’s room at Miss Molly’s Inn on Main Street in Chincoteague. Betsa Marsh photo
Crab cake salad at Mallard’s on the Wharf comes with a serene waterfront view in Onancock, VA. Onancock is a wharf town dating back to 1680. Betsa Marsh photo
Mussels at Mallard’s on the Wharf in Onancock, VA. Onancock is a wharf town dating back to 1680. Betsa Marsh photo
Toms Cove Aqua Farm oysters star at Don’s Seafood restaurant in Chincoteague. The third generation of the Clark family runs the restaurant today. Betsa Marsh photo
Denise Bowden of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company has inked in her love of the island. Betsa Marsh photo
The Island Creamery is always ready with a chill scoop. Betsa Marsh photo
Beachcombers head to Toms Cove after a storm for some of the island’s best seashell picking. Betsa Marsh photo
Seagrass and bay breezes beckon along the Toms Cove boardwalk. Betsa Marsh photo