In Maryland, the ponies are part of the wildlife on Assateague Island National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service. Maryland's portion of the island is a little larger, about 20 miles, and the ponies roam free over all of it, to the delight of visitors all year round.
"The Park Service is assuming they're part of the natural world to some extent," says Mr. Schroer, speaking of the Maryland herd. "In the refuge, we consider it an outside animal, managed by special permit. We do not look at it as part of the natural system."
The Virginia herd
The Virginia herd is managed as a commercial resource. Defenders call it a unique fund-raising tradition; critics call it a profit-oriented "foal factory." The Chincoteague Fire Department sells off 60 or so foals every year to put funds into the Fire Department.
The annual pony swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, and the auction the next day, draw thousands of people from across the country. The swim and auction, and the Henry book, have made the horses famous as "Chincoteague ponies." The Fire Department's stewardship of the herd dates to the 1920s, predating the federal parkland by at least two decades.
The Fire Department pays $1,500 a year in grazing fees to let the horses stay in fenced areas on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. In the course of each year, the herd is rounded up at least three times; twice for veterinary care, and once for the annual auction of the herd's foals, held on the last Thursday in July.
"The fire company does a good job in taking care of the ponies," says Mr. Schroer of wildlife refuge. The grazing permit at the refuge, where the ponies spend most of their time, has a lot of rules and restrictions, particularly about veterinary care.
"They cannot exceed 150 adult animals," Mr. Schroer says. "This is a herd maintained at a fairly constant level. They maintain it through the penning and auction."
The fire company keeps a vet on retainer for the herd, Dr. Charles Cameron, whose first horse was a Chincoteague pony and who now owns three of them. He and his two partners worm, test and vaccinate the herd in two roundups each year. Without such care, the horses could not be sold.
"We take care of the horses," says Mr. Bloxom. "We can't have ours on the road -- we have to keep them fenced. . . . We watch them better. The Maryland horses are a lot different. They never get rounded up. They're hard to handle."
In addition to paying the vet bills for the horses' care, the fire company also buys hay in the winter so the herd does not go hungry. Mr. Bloxom estimates the annual veterinary costs at about $1,800; the cost of hay varies, depending on how harsh the winter is and how much hay is needed. Last year's hay ran about $1,200, he says; 400 bales at $3 a bale.
The sale profits also vary from year to year, depending on the bidding. Last year's sale of 62 foals and five yearlings brought in about $63,000.
In recent years, the Fire Department has tightened some of the auction rules; buyers are now required to have proper transport for the foals, and the veterinarian is present whenever the horses are herded or handled.
"It's not likely that this event is going to end," says Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection Association. Each year, she and others in her group go to the auction and give each new owner a full-care starter kit for the foals: Foal-Lac (equine baby formula), a manual and literature.
"We're trying to educate the buyers of the foals," Ms. Lohnes says. "Along the way, I believe we have educated the firemen."
But the pony swim and sale, now in its 70th year, continues to irk the National Humane Society and others.
"They force these stallions into very tight corrals where they bite and kick each other," says Mr. Rutberg, who last saw an auction in 1987. "Then they pull these foals away from their mothers. It's ++ turning this into a pony ranch, with the goal being foal production."
"I think what they [the horses] have lost is their ability to be natural," agrees Mr. Keiper, the Penn State researcher. "All those horses together in that pen -- what do you do to their social organization? I've always said the swim and the roundup is not that big a deal for the older animals. I think the stress comes from the penning."
The Fire Department defends the auction on the grounds of tradition, and points to the vet care and feeding of the animals as better ways to handle the herd than to just let it run wild, unprotected from disease and food shortages.
"We check them all year round," says Mr. Bloxom. "We test them. We round them up in July and then we turn them back [onto Assateague]. . . . There's a lot of work involved.
"They help the company out moneywise, the colts we sell. It buys equipment for the fire company."
"Since we sell them, we have to go the extra mile and give them all the inoculations they need," says Don Leonard, another island resident who has long been involved with the pony swim and sale.