Driving through the Eastern Shore, it often seems as though the water encompasses more space than the land, and that surely the local inhabitants must be amphibious creatures capable of existing perfectly between both. At no other location, does this appear more certain than while crossing the bridge into Chincoteague Island, Virginia.
Chincoteague is a town where water and land seem to interweave seamlessly, where practically from any vantage point, you can witness the sun reflecting off of Chincoteague Bay. On the primary drag through town are quaint retail shops, restaurants, boat docks, primary residences, and quite a few fishing shacks. It’s a place where modern amenities and contemporary business exist, but almost as an aside to what is there at the core, a town both respectful and celebratory to its history.
On the last Thursday in July, the sound echoes through town before the scene is even visible. “And here we have a three month old mare….can I get a thousand, do we have a thousand,” rang out the voice of the auctioneer.
The scene, located right on Main Street, in the midst of town, is at the fireman’s carnival grounds; and at center stage thousands of people congregate on bleachers, or sit on lawn chairs—some are even perched high up in trees, all to see the main attraction, the Chincoteague Pony Auction. It’s been this way since 1925, when the volunteer fire department, realizing it needed to raise funds following two devastating town fires, started the annual event, now in its 87th year. The pony auction raises 100% of the fire department’s annual budget. It also helps to control the herd population, determined to be optimal at 150. This year, over 60 fowls were auctioned off.
The pony auction follows a week of events beginning with the pony round up. The Saltwater Cowboys, an enviable bunch—it’s an invite only group—whose task to gather the ponies on Assateague Island, parade them down the beach, then swim them over to Chincoteague Island during slack tide on the last Wednesday of July, harkens back to the days of the old west. Yet this time, there’s plenty of water and those infamous, if not at least slightly amphibious, ponies.
On auction day the sound of the auctioneer’s voice mingles with the “Yeeeps!” heard from the bidders on the bleachers, and the neighs from the horses in the corral, seeming to speak. While the fowls are kept behind the auction area, waiting their turn in the ring, the adult horses are sequestered in a large corral on the grounds. It’s an unbelievable site, roughly 150 horses in one place, a veritable sea of browns, blacks, and mottled shades of shiny coats, and flowing manes. The young stallions are the ones you hear, often rising up attempting to secure their status in the herd. Crowds gather and speak to the horses; some reach out, and are surprised when the horses are friendly. It’s a rare moment when a creature of the wild meets one of captivity, and it’s nothing short of awe inspiring.
Back at the auction, the auctioneer has been at it for hours, his voice never once faltering. A young mare is up next. She’s a few months old, and beautiful. She’s labeled a “buy back,” meaning that whomever purchases her will pay the money to the fire department, then donate the mare back to the herd. Buy back ponies often raise the highest individual amounts. This mare would eventually be sold for over $7,000.