From the vault: The annual Chincoteague pony swim

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The annual pony penning at Chincoteague takes place this week, bringing an element of cowboy spectacle to the otherwise quiet island.

Each year, hundreds of wild ponies on Assateague are rounded up by “saltwater cowboys” and forced to swim at low tide to neighboring Chincoteague Island. They’re then sold at auction – proceeds benefit the local fire department.

The annual pony penning has acquired mythological status with the help of the book Misty of Chincoteague, and subsequent film, filmed on the island. Though the reality of the pony-penning has been somewhat less romantic.

A correspondent writing under the byline “N.E.F.” covered the roundup for The Baltimore Sun in 1876, reporting, bluntly: “The pony-penning was not so interesting as former occurrences of the kind are represented to have been.” The horses, he wrote, were little better than “mongrels,” wild and interbred, with the exception of a few particularly beautiful specimens.

According to a 1911 story from The Sun, Uncle Jim Whealton, the island’s historian, then in his 90s, remembered hearing stories from his father about slaves being sent to wrangle wild ponies. This, he believed, was the origin of the practice of pony penning.

No one knows exactly where the wild ponies came from. A popular legend – and one repeated in Misty – tells that they were riding aboard a Spanish ship that wrecked nearby. However, the National Parks Service website refutes this theory, maintaining that the ponies are descendants of the horses of English colonists.