Thousands (millions?) of children have read Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, the classic story of a foal and her two young caretakers. The book, first published in 1947 and reprised in the film Misty (1961), brought worldwide fame to sleepy Chincoteague, Va., a town of less than 3,000 permanent residents, and its annual Pony Swim and Auction.

The penning of local coastal ponies dates back more than two centuries and has been an event since the 1700s. Early island residents would cross to the neighboring island of Assateague, gather up the wild horses that lived there, and act as “saltwater cowboys” to guide the herd back across the channel. In 1925, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company gained ownership of the herd, kept the pony penning tradition alive, and made it an annual event. On the day after the swim, foals and yearlings are auctioned off to help raise money for the fire department.

Local lore states that the animals are the offspring of domestic horses whose owners turned them loose long ago to avoid paying livestock taxes. Another legend claims they are the descendants of ponies who made their way ashore from a Spanish ship that sunk off the coast in the early 18th century. Today, the event draws international attention, and up to 40,000 spectators watch from the shoreline or in boats. Often, multiple generations work as cowboys, making the event a cherished family tradition as well as a public one. Typically, 150 ponies make the crossing, held on the last Wednesday of July. The swim itself lasts a mere three minutes and is completed during slack tide when there is little or no current and the risk is minimal.

After the horses are safely across, they take a short rest and are then paraded down Main Street. The following day, foals and young horses are sold at auction, while adult horses are returned to the island. This practice helps keep the herd to a manageable size, as overpopulation damages the ecology of the 24.4 square-mile Assateague Island. Although the town of Chincoteague has changed dramatically since its days as a fishing village, the Pony Swim and Auction remain essentially the same. Then, as now, horse lovers have a yearly chance to witness the wild and beautiful Chincoteague ponies and perhaps even take one home.

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