CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- Barbara Snyder's daughters may not have appreciated being roused from their beds to tramp through a mosquito-filled marsh at 4 a.m. yesterday, but it fulfilled a "lifelong dream" for their mother.
"I've wanted to do this since I was 5 years old," said Mrs. Snyder, now 35, who drove six hours from Raleigh, N.C., to give the girls, Airika, 12, and Hannah, 6, corral-side seats to watch the wild ponies make their annual swim from Assateague to Chincoteague Island.
Mrs. Snyder and thousands of other horse lovers streamed into this town of 3,500 residents for the 66th annual pony swim. But the crowd, said officials of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which owns and manages the wild pony herd, was much smaller than last year's 30,000 to 40,000.
Many probably were turned off by the early starting time, said Roe Terry, president of the fire company. But that was governed by the tides.
"We have to go with the slack tide, when the current is calmest for the ponies to swim," he explained. "Usually, it's later in the morning."
The first ponies took the plunge at 8:37 a.m. yesterday. Less than five minutes later, they climbed ashore.
About 60 foals from the herd of 160 will be auctioned off tomorrow morning to raise money and to hold down the size of the herd. The remaining horses will be shepherded back across the channel.
Two herds of ponies roam Assateague Island, one on each side of the Maryland-Virginia border. The Maryland herd, managed by the National Park Service, runs wild and mingles freely with campers and beach-goers. The fire department's herd is kept on the Virginia side with a fence.
A fire company committee, in cooperation with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, keeps careful check on the herd, bringing in veterinarians for regular medical care and providing hay when hurricanes and winter storms threaten the food supply.
It may be a lot of work for fewer than 30 active members, but it's lucrative.
The fire department won't say how much it earns from the ponies, but a high-ranking officer who didn't want to be identified said the company expects to raise more than $100,000 from the pony auction and the two-week carnival that coincides with the swim.
Corralled on Chincoteague for a brief rest between the swim and their parade to the carnival grounds, 3-month-old foals shyly nuzzledtheir mothers' stomachs, breathing heavily and shaking off the channel water. While a few stallions argued and kicked up their heels, most of the horses responded calmly to the pats of the children who crowded the snow fence.
"Here, Michael, here's a spot where you can touch the ponies," said David Saplansky, of Philadelphia, as he edged his 6-year-old son through the crowd to a spot at the fence.
Lifted by his father, the boy tentatively leaned over to pet a damp foal, then pulled his hand back with a giggle. He buried his head in his dad's shoulder and bashfully proclaimed the ponies "nice."
Meanwhile, Mrs. Snyder and her daughters snatched up marsh grass and offered it to the ponies, and Mrs. Snyder talked pony sociology.
"The stallions have collected their mares," she said. "Now all the horses are quiet. Everybody's found each other." With misty eyes, she pressed close to the fence.
"It's hard to separate from them, once you're here," she sighed as the fire department's "saltwater cowboys" began to herd the ponies downthe road to the carnival grounds. "You just want to stay and stay."