So you want to see the Pony Swim. Whether you’re an old hat or a greenhorn, we talk to folks just like you every day. Every year, it’s basically the same procedure, and we’ve got the skinny on what you need to know as a visitor to our island.
First things first: the Schedule.
Saturday & Sunday, July 26-27
Roundup begins. The Southern herd will be rounded up and visible in the holding corral on Assateague (see map)
Monday, July 28
6-7am (Sunrise): Saltwater Cowboys bring the Northern herd down the beach to be put in the holding corral with the Southern herd. Park at the beach and follow the crowds.
All Ponies can be viewed at holding corral on Assateague
Carnival opens 7-11PM
Tuesday, July 29
Some years, there is breakfast with the Saltwater Cowboys at McDonalds (Time TBA)
All Ponies can be viewed at holding corral on Assateague
Carnival opens 7-11PM
Wednesday, July 30 (see detailed Pony Swim FAQ)
5am: Shuttle to memorial park begins running. Our guests can easily walk to the pony express stop at the Chamber of Commerce (in the traffic circle.) The shuttle will drop you off in the same location after the swim.
At slack tide between 6am and 1pm, the ponies will swim across the channel at Memorial Park from Assateague to Chincoteague. No parking is available at Memorial Park, so you should take the shuttle or ride a bike (see FAQ.) If you have reserved seats on a boat, leave plenty of time to navigate to your pick-up destination. Take water, sunscreen, & bug spray. Arrive early for the best view. Be warned– if you’re attending the swim on foot, you *will* get muddy! Wear old clothes and shoes.
Following a brief rest after the swim, the ponies will be herded up Pony Swim Lane, to Ridge Road, to Beebee Road, to Main Street, ending at the Carnival Grounds.
King or Queen Neptune (the first colt or filly ashore at the swim) will be raffled away at the Carnival Grounds. You must have your ticket and you must be present to win!
Carnival opens immediately following the swim for a couple of hours and will reopen 7-11PM
Thursday, July 31
Wild Pony Auction 8am-12pm at the Carnival Grounds (see Auction FAQ)
Carnival opens immediately following the auction for a couple of hours and will reopen 7-11PM
Friday, August 1
At slack tide between 5am and noon, the remaining ponies will swim back across the channel to Assateague.
Carnival opens 7-11PM
As you can see, there is a full week of activities. This brings us to a very important fact: All lodging on the island has at least a five-night minimum. Most of the reservations run Sunday night-Thursday night with a Friday morning checkout. (If you don’t want to stay for the whole week’s activities, you might look at staying in Pocomoke, MD or “down the county” as we call it– further South in Accomack County. Staying on the island is definitely more convenient, as the pony swim shuttle and Pony Express trolleys have stops near most of the hotels and campgrounds–this will save you the hassle of traffic and parking.)
You’ll want to book your stay as far in advance as possible. Many hotels have a one month cancellation policy and require a hefty deposit. Some hotels with dynamic pricing may get more expensive as time goes on. (Don’t expect any discounts this week as everywhere will be full weeks or even months in advance.) As far as the Refuge Inn is concerned, we require payment for the whole stay via credit/debit card at the time of booking if you do so online. If you call to reserve, we require ½ of the total stay at the time of booking and the second half of the total stay by May 1st. If you book over the telephone, deposits via personal check and credit/debit card are accepted.
As far as restaurants go, you might have to wait at popular establishments to sit down at lunch or dinner. We always suggest reservations for dinner, but calling in delivery and taking a dip in the pool is a good option, too. Most restaurants will prepare to-go orders if you’d like to eat on the beach, at one of the island’s parks, or back at your hotel. Guests have said it’s no worse than Ocean City on a holiday weekend, but the islanders are used to a more laid-back pace. We pack our lunch this week, and you’re welcome to do the same–a loaf of bread and some PB & J will get you a long way! That said, when you do choose to enjoy one of our awesome restaurants, please be courteous and aware–if there’s a line out the door, enjoy your meal, tip your wait staff, and let another family have your table. Businesses and individuals rely on this week’s income to stay profitable and open.
Seeing the Swim
Another item you should be thinking about is exactly how you’re going to view the swim. Most folks agree that the best way to see the swim is by boat. You can find out which captains have seats left by calling the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce at 757-336-6161 during normal business hours. The best captains (with the most comfortable boats) book up months in advance, so you’ll want to secure your seat ahead of time. It can get expensive, especially if you’re part of a large family or group, but it will save you hours of standing in mud and muck with thousands of your new best friends. (Some people love to go marsh mucking on pony penning. They say the experience wouldn’t be the same without it. More power to them. The author of this blog goes to the swim more years than not, and prefers a nice birds-eye view seat on a boat, in the shade if possible, with a Bloody Mary or two and some donuts from Sugarbakers. If the boat has a bathroom on board, even better.)
A favorite activity for visitors and locals alike is the Fireman’s Carnival. Located on South Main Street, the carnival is open every night during Pony Penning Week and is a cash-only establishment. They have the world’s best clam and oyster fritters, as well as an assortment of other food and treats. Games and rides for the kids and adults are popular (including BINGO!) and can easily fill up a night out for the whole family. There is also be a vendor on-site during Pony Penning offering country western attire, model horses, and a variety of saddles and tack.
In past years, the movie theater on Main Street has shown Misty of Chincoteague for free each day, Monday-Friday. Hopefully they continue this tradition! You can catch it now on Youtube.
Pony Swim FAQ
Q: When do the ponies swim?
A: The fire company has said that the ponies will swim at slack tide (when the current stops moving) between approximately 6am and 1pm on Wednesday the 30th. A more accurate time slot will be announced the week of the swim. Look for the flare that signals that the ponies are on their way.
Q: How do I get to the pony swim? Can I drive/bike/walk?
A: The best way to get to the swim on Wednesday morning is to take the free shuttle. It picks you up at the pony express stop at the Chamber of Commerce (in the traffic circle.) The shuttle will then bring you back to the same drop off location (listen to the Carnival PA system for the last call for the free shuttle.) The swim site is not within walking distance, but you can bike it. Be aware that traffic is very heavy today, so you will need to be especially aware of cars and other bicycles. The few parking spots available at Memorial Park are allocated for handicapped parking ONLY. Do not drive to the swim!
Q: How do I get a seat on a boat to see the swim?
A: Call the Chamber of Commerce at 757-336-6161 to see which licensed boat captains have seats available. Though this option can be expensive, you typically get a very good view of the pony swim and can relax while waiting for the event to occur.
Q: What should I take with me to the pony swim?
A: The operators of the shuttle ask that you bring only what you can fit in your lap, so pack a small bag. The three most important things to take with you are plenty of water, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Plan for it to be very hot and very humid. Many folks like to wear their bathing suits under their clothes. You can also take a wide-brimmed hat, a cheap shower curtain (to put on the marsh mud so you can sit down or take off your shoes while waiting for the swim,) and some entertainment for any children accompanying you. Don’t forget your camera! But, again, remember, you are probably going to get DIRTY and WET so keep your expensive electronics in a plastic baggie just to be safe.
Q: Isn’t it cruel to force the ponies to swim? They look like they are struggling.
A: Ponies are actually very good swimmers. Their haunches and hooves are powerful and can propel them through the water with ease. Foals too young to make the swim are trailered to the Carnival Grounds with their mothers. Pony committee members follow the herd closely in boats to ensure that none of the foals are in danger of exhaustion or drowning. In 89 years of pony swims, the saltwater cowboys have never lost a pony.
Q: Who are the Saltwater Cowboys?
A: Many of them began riding with their fathers or grandfathers as children. Many are members and supporters of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns and manages the herd. A number of volunteers from around the country return year after year to help with the roundup. You can usually meet them on Tuesday morning during breakfast at McDonald’s.
Wild Pony Auction FAQ
Q: When is the auction?
A: The auction runs from approximately 8am until Noon on Thursday.
Q: How do I buy a pony?
A: All you have to do is raise your hand! You do not need to register for a number, like at regular auctions. There are bid spotters at the auction who will signal your bid to the auctioneer. Be aware that the only forms of payment accepted are cash, Visa, and Mastercard. Personal checks are NOT accepted. You also must provide appropriate transportation to get your new foal to its home.
Q: What should I take with me to the auction?
A: The bleachers typically fill up pretty early, so you’ll want to take a lawn/beach/camping chair as well as plenty of water, sunscreen, and insect repellent. It can get really hot, so a hat is also recommended. Bring your wallet, too, if you’re expecting to purchase a foal or enjoy the carnival afterward!
Q: Why are the foals auctioned off?
A: The natural habitat on Assateague Island can only support a limited number of horses– about 150, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns and manages the herd, must keep the herd at an appropriate size in order to maintain the habitat and not hurt the delicate salt marsh ecosystem. The easiest and most humane way of accomplishing this is to auction off most of the foals every year.
Q: Isn’t it cruel to separate the foals from their mothers at such a young age?
A: The pony committee is very careful to only separate foals from their mothers at the appropriate age, when they can eat solid food and would begin to be pushed away from nursing naturally(around 3 months.) Any foals younger than this are sold at auction in July and then kept with their mothers until the Fall Roundup, when the buyer can come pick up their foal.
Q: I wanted to purchase a pony at the auction, but got outbid. Do I have any other options?
A: The Chincoteague Pony Farm, run by the same folks who own the Refuge Inn, usually has a few foals or yearlings for sale for very reasonable prices. You can visit their website at www.chincoteagueponyfarm.com
To sum up, the annual Pony Penning is a week full of wholesome, fun entertainment for the whole family. It does require a bit of advance planning to enjoy it to the fullest, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime event that you won’t want to miss. To get started, book your stay at the Refuge by visiting our online booking website or giving us a call at 800-664-6089.