Horse enthusiasts the world over know all about the wild mustangs that roam with the buffalo across the North American West. But there is a lesser-known herd of wild ponies in the eastern United States. Like the mustangs, these paints, pintos and palominos may be the descendants of horses brought over by America's original Spanish explorers. Voice of America's Rebecca Ward joined the yearly roundup in the tiny fishing village of Chincoteague.
This may look like a scene from the Old West. But we're on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, just outside Washington. Chincoteague's Volunteer Fire Department has held this annual roundup for the past 82 years.
Roe Terry is their public relations officer. He describes the event. “Every year we round them up, we sell the foals, the ones that were born in the year. That keeps the herd back down to a manageable level, keeps us at our grazing permit of 150. Then the money goes to the fire company to buy ambulances and fire trucks and all that."
The 1947 children's novel by Maguerite Henry - "Misty of Chincoteague" - made the annual pony penning famous, especially among pre-teen girls.
The ponies who graze freely on National Park land on the Virginia side of Assateague Island are rounded up once a year to keep the herd down to 150. Before the annual swim across the bay, veterinarians check the ponies. Those that will go up for auction are separated and corralled. Chincoteague's Volunteer Fire department began the auction decades ago to raise money.
"It became a really big event. The ponies went from $10 to $100 apiece overnight. And now we have a pony registration, we have microchips in them for tracking; we give them tetanus shots, rabies shots. We take as good care of them as you would in your backyard. Now they bring upwards of $10,500," Terry said.
One spectator said, "It started with my uncle George and my grandfather. So both families have been in it - that would make me third generation riding down here.
Rounding up the ponies and preparing them for sale begins days before the actual pony swim. But it is the swim across the bay that nearly 35,000 people came to see. Once in place...they have to wait...and wait...and wait.
Some get their prized spot as early as 5am. The actual swim takes place seven hours later.
About 150 wild ponies crossed into Chincoteague -- fortunately for me, not that wild.