WHAT IS IT?
A Multimedia Journey through the Iconic Chincoteague Pony Swim!
The wild ponies of Assateague Island, made famous by Marguerite Henry’s classic story “Misty of Chincoteague” live in freedom on the tiny barrier island off the mid-Atlantic coastline. Once a year, the ponies are gathered by the Saltwater Cowboys, vetted for health, and then swim across the bay to neighboring Chincoteague Island. The ponies parade to the carnival grounds. The weanlings are auctioned, while the adults and foals too young to be separated from their mothers swim back the Assateague to roam the beaches and marshes yet again. The money from the sale benefits the Volunteer Fire Department, who manages the herd. More importantly, the sale allows the herd to be maintained with genetic diversity at numbers sustainable for the barrier island ecosystem.
Like a zillion other horse crazy kids of all ages- and probably YOU!- I fell in love with “Misty of Chincoteague,” Marguerite Henry’s delightful book based on a real Chincoteague pony. My mother would then pack us all on camping trips to the islands, though never for the Pony Swim- she was afraid I’d smuggle a pony into the station wagon!
My husband immediately fell in love with Chincoteague, Assateague and the wild ponies the first time I introduced them. We have explored both the Maryland and Virginia sides of Assateague and their resident pony bands together. The different portions are managed in uniquely different ways by the Assateague Island National Seashore, the Assateague State Park, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the National Park Service recreational beach, and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.
In 2019, almost 40 years after our first family camping trip my mother, my intrepid husband, and I returned to our beloved islands for all the adventure and excitement of the Pony Swim. We sleuthed locally for the most amazing and unique ways to see and experience every aspect of this unique and longstanding tradition. We shot thousands of photographs both as standalone images and as references for additional artworks.
There’s a bigger picture on the horizon. Ideas of stewardship, ownership, and conflicting perspectives in the context of our public and protected land started battling in my mind during on a cross-country trip, when Trump announced the decommissioning of several national monuments in areas we were passing through. When I got home and started parsing the project together, Was right when Rockwell was first announced. I immediately jumped into the fray, doing research and speaking at multiple town, city, and county council meetings a week. It took protesting extract gas pipe. Pipeline at the national Park headquarters in Hagerstown for me to realize duh, this battle is being fought in my backyard, and in backyards around the nation!
Mark and I had already spent time on Chincoteague and Assateague. As a horseman and an American, I’m always interested in the wild horse conundrum. The difference between management styles of the Maryland and Virginia pony herds is intriguing. (More on that in a forthcoming update.)
With my mother and as she wanted to sell her RV, I figured this might be the only chance I get to fulfill the childhood dream of going to the Chincoteague pony swim. Along with my cameras and sketchbooks, I would also pack my adult perspectives on art, equines, responsibility, and resource management.