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Pony Penning Returns to the Shore

Jul 10, 2012 04:23PM ● By Anonymous
Thousands of people gather to watch the spectacle, which is so highly anticipated it’s become just one element of a week-long celebration and fundraiser dubbed “Pony Penning.”

While the act of herding and penning wild animals on Assateague began more than 300 years ago—a likely was made a celebration even then—it wasn’t until the 1920s when the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department started acquiring the ponies and the modern day tradition, began.

“Traditionally… the settlers here also had sheep penning and wild hogs, and they did it out of necessity,” says Chincoteague Chamber tourism counselor Cindy Oehm. “The involvement of the fire department in the 1920s—when they started acquiring the ponies—is what people think of as the beginning of the event that is [today’s] Pony Penning.” Oehm says that initially, the pony penning was all done on Assateague, but came to incorporate the pony swim to Chincoteague when the Fire Department got involved. Now, it also includes a month-long carnival based around it, and serves as the Department’s fundraiser.

“It’s always been a regionally popular event, a way of getting together, a reunion time and a sort of homecoming event,” Oehm says of the 88-year-old “modern” version of the event. “But when Marguerite Henry wrote the hugely popular Misty of Chincoteague [in 1947], it brought a lot of attention to the island and took the event from a regional to a national one.”

This year, the swimming ritual falls on July 25th. As per tradition, the swim itself will take place sometime between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., during the “slack tide”—when the water is unstressed and neither rising or falling nor moving. According the Chincoteague Chamber, the precise swim time also depends on the weather and the “readiness” of the ponies. For visitor planning purposes, an official time is announced in the days prior.

Following the swim, the ponies will be given about 45 minutes to rest and be examined by a veterinarian before they parade down to the carnival on Main Street. There, the first foal to have come ashore will be crowned King or Queen Neptune, and raffled off to a lucky winner. The next day, the ponies are auctioned off, mostly, Oehm says, to family farms.

“It’s a really fun event,” says Oehm. “It’s very family friendly—as this whole town is—and it’s really fun.”

At the carnival—which runs 16 nights from June 29th to August 4th, including nightly the week of Pony Penning—visitors celebrate the ponies, the tradition and town with rides, games, and traditional fair fare, beginning at 7 p.m.

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