By Lauren R. Giannini
Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia is a wish-list destination for many, especially those who loved reading “Misty of Chincoteague,” a fictionalized tale published in 1947 about three real ponies: Misty, Phantom and Stormy. The first of Marguerite Henry’s delightful wild pony novels, it quickly became a beloved children’s classic. It’s never too late to fulfill a childhood dream to see the ponies in person. This summer, the 92nd annual Pony Swim and Auction will attract kids of all ages from all over the world on Wednesday and Thursday, July 26 and 27.
Chosen as America’s Happiest Seaside Town 2014 by coastalliving.com, many will agree that Chincoteague, Virginia’s one and only resort island, is very special. It offers a cozy ambience, measuring a mere 7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. Its importance includes serving as the gateway to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, the 37-mile barrier island and home of the wild ponies.
The Pony Swim and Auction raises funds for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC), which owns the wild herd. The CVFC supervises the ponies’ maintenance year-round and conducts the major July round-up as well as two others, in April and October, that allow the CVFC to monitor the ponies’ health. The ponies are microchipped, making it easier to keep individual records that track being wormed, tested and vaccinated. The routine exam includes checking the condition of teeth and hooves.
CVFC is responsible for keeping the herd to 150 head of mature breeding ponies, the maximum allowed on the Virginia portion of Assateague by the federal grazing grant with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The CVFC also goes out to break ice in the winter so the ponies have access to fresh water, and put out hay when snow covers the marsh grass or it’s too poor to sustain the ponies.
At the annual auction, Chincoteague enthusiasts don’t just buy ponies to take home to train for riding and driving. They purchase “buybacks” — fillies and colts that have been carefully selected to remain as breeding stock to refresh the gene pool. During the auction, bidding can get fiercely competitive, occasionally resulting in record bids. This happened in 2015 when the last four foals by the beloved stallion Surfer Dude were offered — three as buybacks and one filly for outright sale, who lives in New York with her new owners. Considered the “King of Assateague” and the most famous Chincoteague pony since Misty, Surfer Dude was 23 when he passed away earlier that year, following a harsh winter. The large pony stamped many of his offspring with his distinctive coloring of a deep brown body and flaxen mane and tail, which inspired the name Surfer Dude. He was also considered very gentle for a stallion.
The last colt sired by Surfer Dude, a buyback, went under the hammer for $10,000 to the Buy Back Babes, who have replenished the Chincoteague pony gene pool for 15 years. Three friends from Massachusetts and a Chincoteague resident purchased two of the three Surfer Dude buyback fillies. The all-time buyback record was set by the Chincoteague Legacy Group, founded in May 2015 with more than 400 people joining the Facebook group and contributing to the CLG fund to record the winning bid of $25,000 for the black and white Surfer Dude buyback filly, now known as CLG Blue Moon because of her blue eyes.
A major heartwarming feature of the Pony Swim & Auction is the Feather Fund. This 501(c)(3) non-profit operates under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of Carroll County (Maryland) and continues the work of the late Carollynn Suplee, who helped deserving children across the U.S.A. and Canada to purchase their heart’s desire, a Chincoteague pony. Last year, the Chincoteague Legacy Group contributed to one of the two traditional Feather Fund Foal Award winners and then made it possible for the Feather Fund to purchase a foal for a third applicant. (www.featherfund.org)
There’s a lot to love about Chincoteague, along with tons of fun, excitement, community spirit and great seafood, but heads up! While exact attendance numbers are not known, Chincoteague has welcomed as many as 30,000–40,000 people to the annual Pony Swim and Auction. Given the small-town ambience of the island, local lodging, RV parks and campgrounds tend to get booked quickly, so start planning your stay well in advance. The following sites are chock full of information for your Chincoteague holiday from lodging, restaurants and activities to the ponies and special events.
Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce: www.chincoteaguechamber.com
Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company: cvfc3.com
Chincoteague Island: www.chincoteague.com