The Chincoteague Feral Ponies’ Annual 4-Minute SwimFor almost a century, the Saltwater Cowboys of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department have been wrangling up wild ponies and sending them on a 4-minute swim across the Chincoteague Channel, just off the coast of Virginia. The last Wednesday of July is the day that the ponies are scheduled to paddle 75 yards to the other side of the water, before parading through town be auctioned off.
Some locals call the ponies wild, but they are actually feral, meaning at one point they escaped domestication. The most popular origin story is that the Chincoteague ponies survived a 17th Century Spanish shipwreck. With little evidence to support that popular tale, however, a more plausible one is that settlers kept ponies on the island to avoid a 1669 horse tax.
Over their 400 year history, these island mutts have demonstrated a keen ability to stick around. They’re short and stocky; svelte in the summer, puffy in the winter. They survive on marsh grasses and poison ivy — whatever they can get their snouts on.
With no apex predators, the two herds on the island would be a problem if not managed. Grazing ponies would disrupt fiddler crab activity and take food and nesting habitat from other animals like deer and marsh birds, according to Kelly Taylor, science communicator at Assateague Island National Seashore.
Along with being a good way to raise funds for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, the auction of their private herd on the Virginia side of the island reduces the population and protects the environment. On the Maryland side however, the National Park Service can’t sell public wildlife, so they put their herd on birth control. Only the Virginia ponies take part in the swim.
Source: NY Times