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Pony swim brings ‘Misty’ lovers back to Chincoteague

The event, which started 97 years ago but paused in the pandemic, became popular because of children’s book series.

Ponies swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, on Wednesday during an annual event that has been going on for 97 years. The pony swim was made famous by the Misty of Chincoteague book series. (Billy Schuerman/AP)
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Brandy Farrell traveled all the way from Canada for the Chincoteague Pony Swim on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Farrell, 55, a bookkeeper from Ontario, Canada, grew up with horses. “I fell in love with the Misty of Chincoteague books as a child, and it took me away to a dream world,” she said.

Attending the pony swim was on Farrell’s bucket list. Though she’s seen pictures of the Chincoteague ponies, she’s wanted to see the legendary horses in person for more than 20 years. She camped out on Pony Swim Lane at 5:30 a.m. with husband Doug to get a good spot.

The pony swim returned Wednesday morning for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. The move of the ponies across the Assateague Channel is a 97-year tradition with enthusiastic spectators, many of whom joined the Farrells hours early.

Shortly after 9 a.m., a red-orange flare shot up from a Coast Guard boat. The flare signaled to the group of horseback riders known as the Saltwater Cowboys that it was time to bring the ponies across the channel.

The ponies didn’t want to be hurried, though, and paused to nibble on grass in the shallow water at the start of their journey.

The cowboys, most of whom are members of the volunteer fire department that organizes the event, rode horses on the edges of the channel’s deep water to keep the ponies under control. The event takes place during slack tide, a period between tides when there isn’t a current.

Spectators raised their phones and lifted children onto their shoulders so they could watch. The ponies were submerged up to their necks, water churning as they made their way across the channel. It was finished in 4½ minutes.

The event and the festivities aren’t just for a good show. The swim raises money to buy equipment for the fire department, pay the roughly $45,000 yearly vet bill for the ponies, and fund eight scholarships for Chincoteague high-schoolers, said Denise Bowden, a spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

After the swim, about 65 foals will be sold in an auction. It’s important to reduce the population of the horses, because the fire department has an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep only 150 ponies on Assateague, Bowden said.

During the pandemic, the auction of the foals has been held online. This year, it’s online and live. The first foal to come ashore — a black-and-white male this year — is not sold with the others. Instead he’s named “King Neptune” and will be sold in a raffle.

Evelyn Shotwell, director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, which helps to advertise the swim, said it started with just a few people in 1925.

Then in 1947, “Misty of Chincoteague,” a children’s book by Marguerite Henry, was published, followed by a 1961 movie and several other books that raised the profile of the island’s ponies.

There are several legends about how the ponies came to Assateague. Shotwell said one version is that they washed ashore from a Spanish shipwreck. Another is that they were left on Assateague by farmers who used the island as a natural fence to keep the ponies contained. Both stories are probably true, she said.

Ethan Haga of Raleigh, North Carolina, was one of the younger Misty fans who arrived hours early. He came with his parents, brother and grandmother. The trip was his birthday present — he turns 10 years old in a few weeks.

His mother, Jen Haga, said she went to the pony swim in 1987 with her mother and great-grandmother and loved the Misty books too.

Before the event, Ethan was struggling to stay awake, but afterward, he said, “I thought it was cool how fast they could swim.” He wants to return next year.

When Farrell finally saw the ponies, she said they were so beautiful they made her cry. “I loved it,” she said, sniffling. “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than a foal.”

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