It can be the best of times, or the worst of times. April on Chincoteague and Assateague is tricky as far as the weather is concerned. Last year, it was freezing, the year before, cold and rainy. Nevertheless, the Saltwater cowboys ride on.
2018 Spring Roundup will be held on Friday, April 13, and Saturday, April 14.
The Saltwater Cowboys and the Chincoteague Vol. Fire Company have three scheduled “round-ups” a year, and April is the first roundup after the cold winter. Winter can be hard on the island life, since frigid snow and whipping winds combined with less nutritious food can make it a struggle for the ponies. For centuries, they have survived and the herd has lived on because when winter turns to spring, the Wild Chincoteague Ponies have their foals. The April roundup takes place in the first half of foaling season, when most foals are under a month old, if they’ve even been born yet. The roundup serves dual purposes for the Fire Company: they get to see what losses the herd sustained through the winter, and also take the opportunity to vaccinate, deworm, and give individual veterinary care to the ponies.
Where, When, & How
The roundup starts on a Friday, at 4:30 p.m. The southern herd roundup is by far the most popular and visible roundup, because people can watch all the ponies run into the corral. Arrive early and park at the Woodland Trail, or ride a bike directly to the corral via the Black Duck Trail.
Most people probably see the ponies run in the Southern corral and think “where are the cowboys?” Well, the 550 acre enclosure that the ponies are in has only a few major sets of woods and is mostly marsh. The ponies on Assateague seem very docile and accustomed to humans, which is all true until it’s a man on a horse. When the ponies see the cowboys, they take off at full speed in the opposite direction. What the cowboys have to do is put the ponies between themelves and the corral. Over time the cowboys have figured out how to do this systematically with two big groups. They then split into smaller, more specific groups that follow trails through the woods and make a big circle around the whole southern enclosure. After that all the cowboys move forward at a slow pace towards the corral and eventually all of the ponies get rounded up. The ponies often know what is happening and run right into the corral as quick as they can. There are often small fights in the corral between stallions and the dominant stallion Riptide usually chases the younger stallions to a corner and away from his group of mares. The ponies will stay in the corral overnight and get vet checked in the morning and then they get released back to their enclosure.
Saturday, bright and early, the cowboys saddle up again to go round up the northern herd. This herd resides on 3,300 acres of flats, wooded areas, marshland, and dunes. This roundup usually begins at 6 or 7 a.m. and is not as easy to watch as the southern roundup. This roundup takes place from the Maryland-Virginia line south– about 7 miles south, actually, to what the locals call the “bow of the beach” where the northern corral is. This roundup takes a lot of time because the cowboys must ride around the enclosure to get the ponies between them and the corral, which entails riding all the way to the Md-Va line and then entering the enclosure and splitting into groups. The geography of the northern enclosure makes it difficult to always get the ponies to cooperate and sometimes the ponies decide to try and elude the cowboys, so they must be extra careful not to miss any ponies. This roundup can take from three or four hours up to six or seven depending on how many ponies tried to escape the roundup. To watch this roundup, people must book a boat tour, as the service road up to the corral is not open to the public until 2 p.m. when the roundup is over. That being said, to see the most amount of ponies and foals, people hike the service road (Take left onto the Wildlife Loop and keep going straight when you hit gravel) and wait until they open the road to the public because after the veterinary check the ponies generally hang around that area for some time while the stallions gather their mares.
So to sum up, your easiest and best shot at seeing some ponies during the spring roundup is Friday afternoon at the Southern Corral. To see the northern herd, you’re in for a long walk on a potentially chilly day!