The ponies make their annual swim from Assateague Island over to Chincoteague Island.
The annual Chincoteague Pony Auction has raised more than a half a million dollars for the local volunteer fire company on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in just the last four years alone. The event is as much a part of American folklore as it is a beloved local tradition.
It begins like a western on the water; each year men on horses known as the "saltwater cowboys" lead the herd of wild ponies from the Virginia side of Assateague Island to swim 75 yards across the channel to Chincoteague Island.
For the past 89 years, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company has held the annual pony auction, which funds 100 percent of the town’s fire department. Fire Company spokesperson Denise Bowden says its even bigger than that.
“This pony penning event sustains this whole town, the whole town is built around the Chincoteague pony," Bowden says.
The event was immortalized in Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel “Misty of Chincoteague,” and the magic captured in that book inspired youthful dreams of owning a pony for a generation of kids, and is still inspiring them today.
“Little kids have saved their money for five or six years with lemonade stands car washes cutting grass, whatever, to be able to come here and purchase a pony," Bowden says.
But the price of purchasing a Chincoteague pony is on the rise. This year, the average winning bid for a pony at the auction was more than $2,700, and a woman from Illinois bid a record $21,000 for a black and white filly — the last of the 54 horses auctioned off last week.
All told, the fire company raised a little more than $149,000, and as the herd of horses swam back across the channel, many youthful dreams of owning a pony came true and a small shore town reveled in the event that has come to define its charm and allure.
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