A roundup, island style

Despite heat, mosquitoes and jellyfish, the `Saltwater Cowboys' pen those ponies


CHINCOTEAGUE, VA. — CHINCOTEAGUE, Va.-- --Wayne Estes woke up before dawn on the third day of his vacation, scarfed down an egg sandwich and doused himself in bug spray. He bucked the heat, putting on his spurs, leather boots, jeans and long-sleeved yellow shirt. Then he settled into the back of his red "cowboy Cadillac" pickup truck for what is, every year, the ride of his life.

It is a ride that alternately breaks and warms little girls' hearts as Estes and his fellow "Saltwater Cowboys" round up the wild ponies on Assateague and drive them across the channel to this small Virginia island, where a lucky few can buy the foals at an auction today.

And for the 40 or so cowboys who ride alongside the ponies every year, it's a lot harder than it looks.

"There's a lot of mosquitoes, a lot of mud, and the deer flies are bad," said Estes, who owns an auto repair business in Chesapeake, Va. "But it's a dream come true that most people would love to do and are just never able to do it."

Every year, Chincoteague's annual pony swim draws 40,000 people - many of them young girls - to an island forever intertwined with its equine neighbors.

For hundreds of years, wild ponies have roamed the beaches of neighboring Assateague Island. Local lore has it that they came from a Spanish shipwreck, but more than likely they are the descendants of animals owned by colonial settlers who allowed them to graze on their land.

The pony swim officially began 81 years ago as a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and has become an effective way to thin the herd.

Chincoteague's five minutes of fame require days of blood and sweat from the cowboys.

Every year, the crew rounds up dozens of ornery ponies in the woods and corrals them into a pen, where a vet checks them to see whether they're fit for the channel swim.

The air is usually thick with biting flies, the water with stinging jellyfish. The horses can get their hooves cut or stuck in the mud. The cowboys, some of whom are in their AARP years, have to be careful they don't throw out their backs or mess up their knees.

Though yesterday's swim didn't start until nearly 11 a.m., the crowds began staking out the few spots of high ground in the marsh shortly after midnight. Many stood in the buggy salt water for hours, waiting for the five-minute swim and subsequent parade through town.

Girls in bikinis stood beside women in bonnets and full-length dresses to greet the ponies as they trotted down Beebe Road, led by two red pickup trucks and a squadron of cowboys.

Some spectators, such as Andrea Galbraith, are just horse people. The Michigan native is studying equestrian management and working on a horse farm outside Philadelphia this summer. When she found out she had a few days off this week, she gassed up her Dodge Durango and headed for the Virginia line. Undaunted by the lack of hotel rooms, the 21-year-old is sleeping in her car for the week.

"It's kind of a little girl's dream to come to see the ponies, but it's never been possible until now, when I had the gall and the vehicle to get there," she said.

Others, like Laura Kelly, are channeling nostalgia. Kelly came 30 years ago as a student and was struck with wonder. Now, at 52, the Georgia resident has returned with her two daughters, Karah, 7, and Nicole, 8, both adopted from Siberia. The girls wore matching pony backpacks and talked dreamily of bringing home a pony, though their father had already said it wasn't going to happen.

"This is our celebration," said Kelly. "We wanted to introduce them to something that I loved 30 years ago. We thought this would be great for them to get up close and personal with something that's a tradition that you don't see anymore."

Though pony-penning has been a tradition since the 1920s, it wasn't until 1947, when Marguerite Henry's book Misty of Chincoteague became a classic children's story, that the swim and pony auction became an international attraction.

Much has changed on the island since Misty's time. Tiny, weathered cottages have given way to expansive waterfront homes. Souvenir shops abound, and nearly every hotel for miles around is booked during the last week in July.

What hasn't changed are the cowboys. Year after year, the same few dozen guys - they are all guys - come back to Chincoteague for what feels like a family reunion. About half are with the fire department. The other half come from Virginia, Maryland and as far away as Florida.

Some grab local hotel rooms and frequent bars such as AJ's, where the bartender fixes screwdrivers for both the cowboys and their horses. A handful park their motor homes on private property in town, where a makeshift stable advertising "margaritas, martinis and bikinis" keeps their canned beer cold.

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