Chincoteague Pony Swim

Pony Swim Day as seen through the eyes of our own, Denise Bowden

I am so not a morning person, especially after a full night at the carnival grounds information booth giving directions and the how to’s and where to’s of the hundreds of fine folks who have chosen to visit our lovely island for our hometown holiday…Pony Penning.

Yet, I wake up with such a start after about 3 hours of sleep knowing what awaits me.  The hum of the crowds and buzz in the air from the journalists and TV crews waiting for me to pick them up to take them to the site that sees so much action that the police must be on patrol to keep the people and traffic moving.

I feed Buddy, my part Doxie part Pomeranian pooch who looks at me as if to say, “where ya going now mom, off to play with the ponies again this week?” a treat and nice pat on the head satisfies him until I return later in the day.  He watches me from the window as I climb into the fire company pickup truck to meet up with the media. They are a mix of local, national, and international people here to bring this event to the world.  And when I say world, I mean it.  I have taken TV crews and journalists from Japan, Australia, Sweden, Germany, England, South America, and so on.  All eager to see what Marguerite Henry so famously wrote in her book, “Misty of Chincoteague”.  After a brief once over of the rules I set forth to them for the day’s events, they climb in with all their cameras and whatnot and we are off.

Arriving at Pony Swim Lane the police officers clear the roads and crowds to let me drive down the marsh area and park so I can get out of the lane easily in a few hours or maybe several hours.  All depends on that slack tide.  As I make my way onto the fire company dock, security lets me through along with the guests that I have brought with me.  The fire company dock is long and leads right out to the water and as I’m walking, I hear people shout my name and wave to me like we are long lost friends.  We are, after all, long time friends.  I have made many, many friends over ponies.  I don’t know everyone’s name, never will.  But I do know the faces and I try so hard to make everyone feel welcomed and special.  

I stop and take it all in, close my eyes, smell the salt water in the air.  Sometimes a gentle breeze may be blowing.  Most of the time though it’s hot, muggy, and sticky – especially as the morning moves along.  The crowds give me more energy as they become enthusiastic when I grab the microphone and welcome them all with my usual opening line, “Good Morning Chincoteague” –  think Robin Williams.

I was born in June of 1969, my parents had me out on a boat in July of 1969 to watch the pony swim.  I have missed one in my almost 53 years on this earth.  It’s in my blood – saltwater runs through my veins and pony penning week, no matter how old I become, will always be the highlight of my year.  I’m born with it, destined for it and will die with it.

As the time draws closer for the actual swim to begin, the crowd is thicker, the number of boats has increased as they dot the parameter of the swim site.  Off in the distance I can see the Saltwater Cowboys moving the herd closer.  I’m in contact with the Pony Committee Chairman by portable radio and we keep in constant communication just in case something was to go awry.  I ramp up the crowd even more by asking for a round of applause for MY Cowboys and yes, I call them MY Cowboys for the love and affection I have for them for the unbelievable job they do year-round for these precious ponies.  

The Coast Guard boat lights off a red smoke signal to let the cowboys know that it’s time.  This sends the crowds into a frenzy.  The tide is perfect to bring the ponies across.  It can be a low slack tide or a high slack tide, doesn’t matter, just has to be on the slack tide.  If it’s a low slack tide the ponies’ hooves can almost touch the soft mud under the water.  As the ponies draw nearer to the shoreline, I turn around to look at the crowd that has gathered in the marsh, mud up to their knees, their cameras ready.  No one has moved.  No one has left the area.  They came long before sunrise to get the perfect spot to see the ponies swim right up in their faces.  They lost shoes and whatnot in the sucking mud, no one cares.  Shoes can be replaced.  I often tell them that the mud can be washed off but the memories of this day will last forever.  

I turn around and the ponies are just a few feet from entering the water and when they do, the thunderous applause from the crowd sends shivers down my spine.  My chest is poked out with pride and admittedly a few tears run down my cheek.  I tuck my head down for a brief prayer of safety and then just as quickly as they went in the water, the ponies are out of the water and on the other side of the channel being greeted by thousands of people.  The ponies don’t care.  They have already put their heads down to munch on some fresh marsh grass oblivious to the clicking of the camera’s, the shouts and cries of their adoring fans.  I myself am still taking it all in just like I do every year and I thank God once again for allowing me to be born in such a magical place with such majestic creatures and such wonderful, caring people.  I sometimes still pinch myself.  

I often tell people how much I appreciate them visiting our little island, no matter what time of year.  They take their hard-earned money and vacation time to come here when they could go anywhere else in the whole wide world yet, they choose here.  A little island with a huge heart with so much to give to your soul.  A place to relax, a place to pause from everyday life, and for me and the rest of the locals, a place to call home. 


Blog donated to us by Denise Bowden. Denise is a 6th generation Chincoteaguer and has been a member of the famous Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co for over 30 years. She serves on the Pony Committee as a Saltwater Cowboy and is the Public Relations Officer for the fire company. She is a state certified firefighter and EMS driver. She also serves on the Town Council and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Museum of Chincoteague Island.

For more information about the Pony Swim, check out the Pony Swim Guide here or you can learn more on the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce here.

If you’d like to support our Ponies please donate to the CVFC, who cares for them. You can make a donation by clicking here. Thank you and we are excited to see you out there with us this year!

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