ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Va. -- There are ponies everywhere on this island. Their neighs and whinnies echo through the woods, mingling with the calls and whoops of the cowboys who have come for the annual roundup.
"Hey, hey, hey, hey," the cowboys sing out as they circle the wild ponies -- which seem docile, except for an occasional stallion that tries to break and take his mares with him before the cowboys close in and drive him back to the group.
The roundup, held Saturday, yesterday and today, opens preparations for the annual pony swim and sale held since 1924 and popularized in Marguerite Henry's 1947 children's book, "Misty of Chincoteague."
Proceeds benefit the Chincoteague volunteer fire department. The cowboys are volunteer firemen, many from Chincoteague and some from Maryland and the Carolinas.
"We try to get about 150 head, maybe 170," said Roe Terry, a Chincoteague fire department spokesman. "All we sell is the young ones -- 3 to 5 months."
Saturday's roundup, which began at 2 p.m., was concentrated on the north end of the Virginia portion of Assateague. About 40 cowboys drove about 80 horses along a four-mile run into a fenced area opposite Tom's Cove.
The firemen rode around and among the wild ponies, leaning back in the saddles with the easy grace of experienced horsemen. Plaid shirts and dungarees were the order of the day, paired with sturdy boots and baseball hats -- and a lot of Red Man chewing tobacco.
The gathering after the roundup was clearly a reunion, as the riders bantered and joked with each other in the rounded vowels and Elizabethan cadences characteristic of the mid-Atlantic coast.
"We've got a waiting list [for riders]," Mr. Terry said, looking around the clearing where horses and riders had gathered. "They all own their own horses. It's not an easy place to ride. . . . They all volunteered years ago and they're still helping out."
Helping with the roundup, though he did not ride this year, was veteran Walt Clark, 74. This was his 60th roundup, he figured, and he was wearing his special roundup hat -- a leather affair with feathers on both sides.
"I've got other hats, but I always wear this one for the roundup," he said. Mr. Clark has been driving horses on the barrier islands since childhood, both for the annual Chincoteague event and also for private sales in places like Ocean City, and he talks about the horses with the authority of his years.
"Some of these horses, they change," he said. "They change colors sometimes."
Also on hand Saturday was the veterinarian who checks each horse to be sure it's old enough for sale.
"It's a year-round project," said Dr. Charles Cameron. "In the spring, we deworm and vaccinate and blood-test them for equine infectious anemia. To sell any of these foals, they have to come from a herd certified free of that [EIA]."
Like many of those participating in Saturday's roundup, Dr. Cameron has had a lifelong association with the ponies.
"My first horse was a Chincoteague pony," he said, smiling at the memory. He has three Chincoteague ponies now, he added.
Behind him, the herded ponies moved around the pen, nuzzling each other, checking their foals. Outside the fence, saddled horses waited as their riders sipped beers and swapped stories, catching up from last year and discussing the plans for the next two days of roundup.
"Most of these ponies have a nice disposition," Dr. Cameron said, watching the herd shift inside the fence. "They work out as a good horse."