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Pony Penning
Chincoteague pony swim 2007.jpg
Chincoteague ponies arriving on Chincoteague after swimming the channel
Status active
Genre auctions, carnivals
Frequency Annually, on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July
Location(s) Chincoteague Island, Virginia
Country United States
Years active 99
Established July 1924
Attendance 40,000-50,000
Organised by Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department
Sponsor Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce

Pony Penning is an annual event held in Chincoteague, Virginia on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department conducts the event and it consists of a Pony Swim on Wednesday and a Pony Auction on Thursday. For the Pony Swim, the Saltwater Cowboys round up feral Chincoteague Ponies from Assateague Island and drive them across the Assateague Channel to Veteran's Memorial Park on Chincoteague Island. The ponies swim across the channel during slack tide, when the water has minimal tidal movement. Once on Chincoteague Island, the Saltwater Cowboys herd the ponies to pens on the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds where some of the foals are auctioned off on Thursday.

History and background

There are several theories about how the Chincoteague Ponies came to exist on Assateague Island. The National Park Service, which controls the ponies on the Maryland side of Assateague, claims that the horses were brought to the island in the 17th century; however, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the ponies on the Virginia side of Assateague, claims that the horses are descended from Spanish horses who swam to the island from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon off the Virginia coast on their way to Peru in the 16th century. At some point after the ponies arrived on the island in the 16th or 17th centuries, pony penning began as a way for locals to claim, brand, and harness the wild herds.

Prior to 1924

By the 1700s, the pony penning was an annual event and unclaimed animals were branded or marked for ownership by groups of settlers. The first written description of the pony penning appeared in 1835, and by 1885, the event had become a festival day. The event consisted of two days of horse and sheep roundups on Assateague and Chincoteague Islands. Over time, the sheep population diminished and the pony population grew and eventually sheep penning was halted. In 1909, the last Wednesday and Thursday of July were designated as the annual days for pony penning. The penning took place on both islands, until a wealthy farmer purchased a significant portion of Assateague Island, which forced many settlers to move to Chincoteague Island. This necessitated a change in the pony penning format, and by 1923, all parts of pony penning except for the actual roundup had moved to Chincoteague Island. The ponies were transported by truck for the first two years after the move, before the annual swim was begun in 1925.

1924 to present

1941 ponies postcard obverse

In 1922, a causeway was completed that connected the Chincoteague Island to the Virginia mainland. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was established in the same year, after a pair of fires ravaged the island. In 1924, the first official Pony Penning Day was held, where the foals were auctioned at $25–50 each to raise money for fire equipment. The fire department owns the herd, and holds a grazing permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which allows the fire department to let the horses graze on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. The permit allows the fire department to maintain a herd of up to 150 horses. In 1927, the crowd of spectators was estimated to be approximately 25,000. The event was popularized by the book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, published in 1947. It now usually draws from 40,000 to 50,000 spectators.

Since 1924, Pony Penning Day has been an annual event, with the exception of 1942, 1943, and 2020. The event was cancelled during 1942 and 1943 due to World War II, and in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pony Swim was cancelled for the first time since World War II. Foals were still sold in an online auction.

Saltwater Cowboys

Chincoteague Pony Swim 1
Saltwater cowboys driving ponies to Chincoteague Carnival Grounds

Members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department known as Saltwater Cowboys oversee the annual Pony Swim. In the early years of the swim, there were not enough riders on Chincoteague to help with the swim, so Saltwater Cowboys were recruited from the mainland. There are about 40-55 Saltwater Cowboys, many of whom have held the position for most of their lives. Positions as a Saltwater Cowboy are highly sought-after, and receiving one is considered an honor. As of 2019, some of the cowboys were third generation. The oldest Saltwater Cowboy is Jack Brittingham, who was 86 years old in 2019.

The Saltwater Cowboys care for the wild ponies throughout the year, rounding up the ponies three times a year to vaccinate and perform check-ups on the horses. Some of the proceeds from the annual pony auction are used to care for the ponies. During spring roundups, the Saltwater Cowboys also release buyback ponies from the previous year's auctions. In the winter of 2018, the Saltwater Cowboys had to euthanize seven ponies suffering from "swamp cancer," a fungal infection. After the loss of these ponies, three mares with ancestral roots on Assateague were donated to the Saltwater Cowboys in order to help maintain the herd population.

Roundup and Beach Walk

Chincoteague pony walk
The Saltwater Cowboys drive the ponies down the beach on Assateague Island, prior to the pony swim
Chincoteague ponies in the corral
Chincoteague ponies in the Southern Corral, prior to the annual swim

Prior to the swim, the Saltwater Cowboys round up the North and South herds on the island and put them into corrals. On the Monday before the Pony Swim, the Northern herd ponies leave the Northern Corral at daybreak and are walked approximately five miles along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean to join the ponies from the South Herd at the Southern Corral. On the Tuesday before the swim, the herd is evaluated and mares in the late stages of pregnancy and those with very young foals are removed from the herd to be trailered between the islands. Ponies that are not health enough to make the swim are also trailered. During this time, the Saltwater Cowboys also select which foals will be "buyback" ponies, ponies designated and auctioned to return and replenish the herd.

Pony Swim

The Pony Swim occurs on Wednesday between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., depending on slack tide. The exact time of the swim is announced the day before the swim. It lasts approximately five-ten minutes. Approximately 40,000 people gather on the shores to watch the swim from Veterans Memorial Park or Pony Swim Lane. Usually, a television screen is located at Veterans Memorial Park so that those in the back of the crowd can still see the swim.

The Saltwater Cowboys ride horses across the channel and assist any ponies, especially foals, who may have a hard time with the crossing. There are also volunteers in boats ready to assist. The first foal to reach the shore is named King or Queen Neptune.

Chincoteague Pony swim by Bonnie Gruenberg
Ponies during the 2010 swim

During the swim, some lactating mares become affected with hypocalcemia, which is treated by on-site veterinarians. The ponies rest for a short period while they are examined by veterinarians and are then driven along Ridge Road on a parade route to the Volunteer Fire Department Fairgrounds by the Saltwater Cowboys. Many observers line the route, helping to keep the ponies on the road. At the fairgrounds, ponies are put into corrals and are again evaluated by veterinarians and potential bidders. Larger foals are auctioned the next day.

Pony Swim back

The majority of the ponies, including any young foals, are returned to Assateague on Friday. The ponies leave the fairgrounds in the morning and then swim back across the channel by noon, guided by the Saltwater Cowboys, and are returned to Assateague Island.

Volunteer Fireman's Carnival

The Volunteer Fireman's Carnival begins prior to the Pony Swim and continues after the swim into early August. After the swim, the ponies are driven by the Saltwater Cowboys to the carnival grounds, where they are corralled and can be observed by the Saltwater Cowboys and potential bidders. In 2018, a pony was chasing a second pony when the second pony slipped and slid into a fence. The pony broke its neck and had to be euthanized. Following this event, animal rights group PETA called for future events to be cancelled. The Volunteer Fire Department responded to say that the death was a "freak accident" and that future events would not be cancelled.

Auction of foals

Pony Auction during 2008 Pony Penning 001
Pony Auction in 2008

The annual auction is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and is also used to maintain the herd size. Since the permit granted to the fire department by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows them to graze a herd of up to 150 horses, the department uses the auction as a way of keeping the numbers within the limits of the permit since approximately seventy foals are born each year. The auction is conducted by auctioneer Tim Jennings. On the Thursday following the swim, approximately sixty foals are auctioned off at the Volunteer Fire Department fairgrounds. As of 2019, more than 1,297 ponies had been auctioned. Items such as photos and prints are also auctioned. Typically, the proceeds from one designated foal are donated to a local charity. Anyone who attends in the auction can participate and registration is not required. Transportation home for auctioned foals must be approved by the pony committee. Ponies are typically picked up by 5 p.m. on the Friday after the auction, but occasionally younger foals must be picked up in the fall.

The Feather Fund is a charity which helps children to purchase ponies at the auction. The charity was created in 2003 in memory of Carollynn Suplee, who used to attend the auction to help children buy ponies until she died from cancer. The charity believes that raising a foal helps to teach children life lessons.

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cancellation of the Pony Swim, the auction was held in an online event on, which was owned by longtime Chincoteague auctioneer Tim Jennings. Photos of the to-be-auctioned foals were posted online along with relevant information about the foal. While usually a one-day event, the 2020 auction lasted a week.

Buyback ponies

Several ponies are purchased under "buy back" conditions, where the bidder donates the money to the fire department but allows the pony to be released back onto Assateague Island in order to help maintain the population. Buyback ponies usually receive the highest bids.

Auction records

The average price paid for a pony has steadily increased over the years. Between 2016 and 2017, the average winning bids increased by 30 percent. In 2018, the average winning bid increased by 24 percent from the previous year. The highest ever recorded bid for an individual pony was $28,250 in 2020.

The 2020 auction, which was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in $388,000 of total sales, breaking the previous total sales record by more than $100,000. The records for highest bid and average cost per pony were also broken. Generally, the highest bid is for a buyback pony.

Year Ponies Sold Average cost High bid Low bid Total sales Notes Reference
1999 86 $1,620 $4,200 $800
2000 84 $2,060 $7,500 $1,300 $173,085
2001 85 $1,961 $10,500 $1000 $166,725
2002 89 $1,818 $7,800 $950 $161,800
2003 71 $1798.59 $6,600 $1,000 $127,700
2004 74 $1618.24 $4000 $850 $119,750
2005 66 $2255.30 $8000 $900 $148,850
2006 78 $2150.64 $7500 $350 $167,750 Low bid was a 3-year-old pony
2007 73 $2,442.47 $17,500 $700 $178,300 Average cost and high bid matched previous record; new total sales record
2008 74 $1,413.85 $9,500 $400 $104,625
2009 70 $1,344.29 $11,700 $500 $94,100
2010 59 $1,310 $8,100 $375 $77,275
2011 69 $1,442 $6,700 $450 $99,500
2012 67 $1,436 $7,000 $400 $96,252
2013 55 $2,000.00 $12,000 $650 $113,975
2014 54 $2,772 $21,000 $700 $149,700 New record for average cost and high bid
2015 61 $2,779.94 $25,000 $500 $169,576 New record for average cost and high bid
2016 57 $2,659 $11,000 $550 $151,550
2017 $3,386 $209,900
2018 $4,310
2019 57 $4,767 $17,000 $271,700 New record for average cost and total sales
2020 $5,705 $28,250 $388,000 Auction was held online due to COVID-19 pandemic. New record for average cost, high bid, and total sales.
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