A photographer’s account of the Chincoteague pony swim

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A rumbling thunderstorm played a role in this year’s July 24 Chincoteague pony swim. Sun photographer Erin Kirkland shares her behind-the-scenes account from the annual event.

By Erin Kirkland —

We arrived at the site about four hours before the ponies began their notorious trek. While media was guided to a dock, bystanders crossed the murky marsh water, tiptoeing their way through mud that claimed many-a-shoe victim. One little girl was lucky enough to get help from her dad as she wrapped her arms around him and flung her head down towards the ground as he navigated the murky water for the both of them.

I glanced down at my combination of shorts and tennis shoes and knew I had made a fundamental mistake. But with plenty of time to spare and many photos ops right in front of me, I knew I had to venture down to the crowds. I trekked through the marsh water to talk to and photograph the anxious crowd. There was the 4-H group who raised money for three years to be here and the two brothers who climbed into a tree to get a better look (and also complained how their mother had insisted they wouldn’t be returning home with a pony). I realized that this was the tradition for this town. While many visitors came from around the country for a swim that would be over in a handful of minutes, there were locals who described with a proud smile how they had never missed a year.

On the other side of the dock, bystanders waded in waist-deep water. One woman in a one-piece bathing suit plopped down on a pool floatie and flapped her arms and legs to scoot further into the water. Every so often a young kid would scream after spotting a loose jelly fish and parents would brush it away — towards another family whose child would only scream just a couple minutes later.

Timing is a funny thing. Just minutes before high tide, the sky turned an angry shade of gray and lighting soon joined, illuminating the backdrop of the ponies’ destination. Those waist-deep in the water jumped and shrieked. A few started to wade to shore, giving up their prime real estate that they had held onto since the early morning. But most stayed put, continuing to hold onto their children who also sat in waist-deep water. Those on the media dock asked about possible cancellations and even postponing the event, but as organizers left the dock to protect their own safety, we were reassured that the pony swim must go on.

And so as the first drops of rain poured down, the ponies began their swim. And conveniently one of my cameras fell victim to the downpour. Photographers tried to cover their equipment as best they could while still trying to get “the shot,” but the rain came down so quickly and at a weird angle, that it became hard to see very well. As soon as the ponies reached the shore, chaos ensued. Those on the dock, grabbed their things and bolted for shelter. Below, people left the marsh area less gingerly than when they first arrived and sloshed through the muddy waters. With my wide-angle camera down for the count, I took out my iPhone and started snapping away.

The lucky ones — depending on your priorities and perspective — found shelter in a row of portable toilets. Another family ducked underneath a blue tarp until all you could see were eight legs and a pair of small hands steadying the tarp.

And this is where I thought it would all end: that the parade through town to the carnival grounds where the ponies would be auctioned off the following day would be delayed or canceled and everyone would go home. Boy was I wrong. The rain stopped just after the ponies made it to shore and we piled onto the back of two trucks which drove in front of the parade. The volunteer firefighters, turned temporary cowboys, were in their element as they yelled a chorus of “Yah!” and “Steady!” Crowds lined the street and sandwiched the ponies, trying to take picture after picture with camera phones glued to their faces. I think that most forgot that these were wild ponies. So you can’t really blame the ones who escaped from the scheduled parade route to take a quick detour to peoples’ backyards. And even some bystanders who weren’t phased by the “wild” title, chased after them with their camera phones.

Eventually, the ponies were herded to the carnival grounds where they were to wait for the next day’s auction and I headed back to my car to edit photos and relive the once-in-a-lifetime adventure I had just experienced.

Chincoteague pony swim marked by thunder, lightning