Saltwater Cowboys and Wild Ponies
15 April 2021 | Chincoteague Island
We were on our way home from Charleston, South Carolina when Jay and I decided to take a detour to Chincoteague and Assateague islands. (To be clear, we were commuting by car, not by boat. Cadenza is tucked safely in her slip down in Mexico.) I had always heard about the wild ponies and wanted to see what we could find.
From what I understand, wild ponies inhabit several of the barrier islands along the east coast. We found them on Assateague Island which is home to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Legend has it that in the 1700s a Spanish Galleon shipwrecked and the ponies swam to shore and have resided there ever since. Besides the ponies, there are hundreds of other species that find refuge here including over 300 different kinds of migratory birds. There are numerous trails and a pristine beach that lies for miles along the Atlantic Ocean.
We began our day hiking through the trails of Assateague Island. Though we were there for the ponies, it wasn't all about the ponies. As we walked through the forest, we came upon the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. It crossed our path, nonchalantly, not one bit intimidated by our large stature compared to its tiny frame. It was a beautiful soft gray color. We heard Blue Jays and Carolina Chickadees as they sang in celebration of spring. White egrets stood quietly and elegantly surrounded by the salt water grasses. Two Turkey Vultures hovered above us, looking for their next meal, I suppose.
We were led to an overlook where we could see the ponies. Barely. They were way, way off in the distance. I felt a bit disappointed. But then I reminded myself they were wild and that means they wander at their free will. Luckily Jay brought binoculars. Obviously, if our eyes couldn't quite see them, pictures couldn't capture them.
We continued on and found a clearing. "Come over here, Jay." I told him. "Look!" They were still way far away but we could see them more clearly from this new angle. I looked behind me to Jay and saw a man standing to the side of us, using his binoculars. Upon leaving, we struck up a conversation with him. He was on foal watch as he worked for the refuge and said they thought there were at least five or six mares pregnant. He went on to share his knowledge.
In the section of the island where we were standing, there were two bands of ponies. Each band had about ten to twelve horses. There was one stallion for each band. He was very protective of his mares and could be quite aggressive. One of them had once backed this man up against a tree, showing him who was boss. In each band there was a lead mare. She was the one who directed the other ponies where to go. Sounds about right. Nature and its hierarchy always fascinate me.
The Chincoteague Fire Company owns the horses and has permission for them to graze on the island. Three times a year, the ponies are rounded up; twice for health checks and the third time for the annual pony swim and auction held every July. Because much of the area is salt water marsh, getting access to the ponies is done on horseback. This is done by the firemen who call themselves The Salt Water Cowboys.
Later in the afternoon, Jay and I booked a boat tour of the island where we got to see the ponies from yet another angle. I think we saw more than a dozen grazing. Their stomachs looked a little distended. We couldn't decide if they were the pregnant mares or it was just the result of adjusting to a salt-water diet.
It was a sunny day but windy and cool on the water. An eagle passed overhead. Ducks meandered along with the kayakers.
Our guide showed us where they round up the ponies and send them across from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. After the swim, they rest them before they parade them through town. The finale is an auction of the foals. This is the sole source of funding for the fire company. Some purchase the foals for private ownership. Others buy the foals and then donate them back to live forever on Assateague Island. This keeps the island from being overpopulated and enough land for the horses to feed. We weren't there for the swim. In fact, because of Covid it has been canceled again this year. But after hearing about it and seeing the photos, we would love to return to witness it. It must be amazing.
We left our boat tour with mixed feelings. We learned a lot about the area and about the ponies. We saw them from a distance. But we really wished we could see them close up. We had one more opportunity where we might get that chance. The gentleman who worked for the refuge told us about the carnival grounds on Chincoteague Island. "This is where they keep the foals that were donated back." He said. "They keep them there for their first year of life to make sure they are healthy and survive. Then they release them into the wild. They are going to release them tomorrow." He then went on to say if we went to the carnival grounds we could probably see them up close. We did just that.
There were about a half dozen grazing behind a fence. Some were brown with white markings and some were white with brown markings. I was grateful for a chance to see them up close but I was even more thankful to know they would be free the following day. Free to join a band and bond with other ponies. Free to graze and live a life of peace. What a wonderful gift.