The Eastern Shore is a place rich in history and as Eastern Shore natives we sure do appreciate where we come from. Behind every event, landmark, hotel or piece of property… you can guarantee there is a story behind it… and a celebration. Traditions run deep here and we love any chance to celebrate them…particularly when it involves the local ponies of Chincoteague!

The Chincoteague Pony Swim has been an Eastern Shore mainstay since 1925, growing into one of the lower Shore’s most beloved summer events. Most of you probably know of the wild horses that roam Assateague and Chincoteague, but if you didn’t know about our ponies here on the Shore, rumor has it these ponies swam ashore from a Spanish Vessel which had capsized off the coast, around the 16th Century and have inhabited our shorelines ever since. Others believe that they are descended from stock, brought to the island by farmers in the 17th century to avoid fencing requirements. But… did you know that over 30,000 spectators typically gather on Chincoteague’s shoreline to watch the ponies being moved from one island to the other!?

Pony penning goes back far in Eastern Shore history… when the town of Chincoteague had a disastrous string of fires, the town realized their fire equipment was inadequate, so they decided to hold a carnival and auctioned off the ponies to raise funds for their local fire department. Around the same time, the famous book “Misty of Chincoteague” was released making Pony Penning famous worldwide.

The Pony Swim is a long process and breaks down into 6 parts.

It all starts on July 26th & 27th when the Pony Round-Up takes place. Chincoteague’s own “Saltwater Cowboys” (many are members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department) will begin to round up approximately 150 wild ponies that live on Assateague Island. The Town informed the public that, “about 50 ponies reside on the southern end of Assateague Island, and will be herded into a southern corral Saturday afternoon. Then 100 ponies reside a little further north on Assateague and will be herded into a northern corral Sunday morning.” They also explained that the southern corral group of ponies can be viewed by spectators on Assateague just off the road that leads to the beach, if interested.

Next, on Monday, July 28th at sunrise, the Saltwater Cowboys will move the ponies from the northern corral out to the beachfront then south along the Atlantic Ocean, and join them with the other ponies. Spectators can also watch this process if you’re at Assateague beach by 6AM.

The most popular process is the famous Pony Swim which takes place on Wednesday, July 30th and is only 3 minutes long in total. The Saltwater Cowboys will officially swim the ponies from Assateague Island in Maryland to Chincoteague Island in Virginia. The time of the swim is at “slack tide.” Slack tide varies throughout the year so usually the swim is sometime between 7AM and 1PM. (Specific times will be announced the week of the swim… either Mon or Tues.) The ponies will swim across the Assateague Channel, just below Memorial Park on the east side of the island.

Important facts for the Pony Swim:

  • It’s free to see the ponies swim
  • Only parking at Memorial Park is for the handicapped
  • Travelers should park at Chincoteague Combined School and catch the free shuttle
  • Come early to beat the crowds
  • Be prepared to wait for long hours with the crowds in the hot sun
  • Best way to see the swim is from a Charter Boat
  • Bring clothes you don’t mind getting dirty & lots of sunscreen
  • Fun fact: The Pony Swim is usually broadcast live by the “Good Morning America” show.

To make the swim even more exciting, the first foal to come ashore will be named King or Queen Neptune and will be given away in a raffle drawing at the carnival grounds later in the day. The carnival time is almost directly after the swim… after the ponies get 45 minutes to rest. After they nap, the Saltwater Cowboys will parade the ponies down Main Street for spectators to see.

The ponies are auctioned off on July 31st. The swim is necessary to move the ponies from one island to the other so that the foals can be auctioned off. Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company states that the ponies are auctioned for two reasons… one, that the auction helps to control the size of the herd, keeping the population for growing too large and secondly, as a fundraiser to help their VFC… which is why the Pony Swim was started in the first place. The auction begins bright and early at 8AM. Some of the proceeds from the auction go to charities and other great causes. Lastly, the adult ponies swim back to Assateague on August 1st as their foals begin a new life.