Jockeying for a peek at the ponies

Chincoteague: Onlookers endure hours of mud and bugs to get a close look at the horses' annual swim.

July 29, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHINCOTEAGUE ISLAND, Va. - In her seventh straight year here, Kathy Seay has this Pony Penning ritual down pat. She ought to offer consulting for rookie spectators.

The suburban Richmond mother of two has it all boiled down to one backpack - full of bug spray, two tarps (one to sit on, one as cover for rain), water and a few snacks. It's all about provisions and patience if you're waiting five or six hours to see 100 of the world's best-known wild horses make their annual swim to Chincoteague across a narrow channel from their home on Assateague Island.

On the last Wednesday in July, this island village of 4,500 is inundated with 35,000 to 50,000 visitors who are willing to endure hours of standing in mud and swatting flies for a glimpse of the herd of squat, pot-bellied horses made famous by the children's novel and movie, Misty of Chincoteague.

Seay has refined her technique since her first visit, when she carried her infant daughter, Megan, in a backpack. "Every single year of her life, we've been here for the pony swim," said Seay, who traveled all night with Megan, 7, and her 11-year-old daughter, Jamie, to arrive at 5:30 yesterday morning.

Luckily, Seay and many other spectators were on their way out of town yesterday by the time heavy rains arrived late in the afternoon.

Mark Tabilian brought his family from Wilmington, Del., to watch the swim at the insistence of his daughter, 11-year-old Ashley, a devoted fan of the series of books about Misty and other ponies. After a few hours standing in the marsh, he wished he had thought to bring folding chairs.

"Ashley really is something of a horse geek; she begged to come," Tabilian said. "This is a fun time, but we're totally unprepared. Thank goodness it hasn't rained."

The spectacle has been played out for nearly 80 years since volunteer firemen first hit on the idea of raising money with a roundup and auction of the wild pony herd that has occupied neighboring Assateague for generations.

In a town where the seafood industry has declined but maintains some vitality, residents have embraced the mainstay of a burgeoning tourist trade - a seemingly endless fascination with the wild ponies.

The most exotic explanation for their presence on Assateague is that today's ponies are descendants of horses that survived a Spanish shipwreck or were abandoned by pirates. A more mundane possibility is that horses were left to graze freely on Assateague like other livestock and eventually ran wild.

"I get a dozen questions a day about Misty and the ponies, where they came from, the same old questions," said Joseph Bernstein, who grew up on Chincoteague and who now owns four souvenir shops in the downtown area of the 7-mile-long island. "I always treat every question like it's the most important in the world, because it's always new to somebody."

Chincoteague officials such as Mayor Jack Tarr say they have never totaled up just how much pony mania is worth, but it's "way, way into the millions every year."

Bernstein can vouch for that. His business during Pony Penning week surpasses his take in the months of October through April combined. "There's something magical about that Chincoteague name."

The annual swim never seems to lack for opportunities for entrepreneurs. Yesterday, 11-year-old Dylan Stewart, his two brothers and a cousin, all from Northern Virginia, were doing brisk business selling squirts of bug spray and water from a hose for 25 cents each, along with bottled water and fruit punch.

The fire company, one of the best-equipped on the Eastern Shore, owns the herd, cares for the animals with twice-a-year medical checkups and supplements their food and water in bad weather. It is the beneficiary of pony largess. Firefighters could bring in $150,000 or more at today's auction of 70 foals that joined their mothers and other adult ponies for the swim.

Homegrown wranglers, known as "saltwater cowboys," waited yesterday for a slack tide, those brief few moments of least resistance when a high or low tide hasn't yet begun to reverse itself, before herding the ponies into the channel just after noon.

After the crossing, as the horses rested in a holding area, thousands of spectators left the water, sinking knee-deep in marsh muck that seemed to devour flip-flops and other flimsy shoes. Again, the preparation paid off as those with high boots made it to higher ground without getting muddy.

The small horses then were driven on a sort of equestrian parade down Main Street to the carnival grounds, where the horses were penned for auction. The brisk 3-mile walk was interrupted occasionally as stallions kicked and bit each other in attempts to establish dominance. Thousands of people cheered as the cowboys cracked whips and kept the herd in line.

"People always assume this is the one big day for us," said saltwater cowboy Billy Taylor. "The truth is, we work with these horses all year. We have three roundups a year, twice for vet checks and once for the auction.

"We're pretty focused on these ponies."

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