How a pony swim makes life better

Sometimes you just have to squeal and giggle. And it doesn’t matter how old you are.

I’m not an animal person, but I did ask for a horse for several years when I was young. No luck. I lived in town and had no idea about the expense and time commitment that owning horses would demand.

So I read about them instead. I loved Marguerite Henry’s books (Misty of Chincoteague, Stormy–Misty’s Foal, King of the Wind, etc.)  and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.) And then I read my boys the Billy and Blaze series by C. W. Anderson, which are so adorable and inspiring.

But sometimes, you need to do more than read about something.

This week I took my mother-in-law to a horse event, just the two of us. We went to the Chincoteague Pony Swim, which occurs the last Wednesday of July every year, rain or shine. We stood or walked the whole day, but it was worth it, mostly because of the joy on her face.

The Chincoteague Pony Swim is the only event of its kind in the world. I’ll try to get the facts right and keep it brief.

About 150 wild ponies live on Assateague Island, a long thin strip of marshy beach protecting the Eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland from the Atlantic Ocean. The Virginia portion contains Chincoteague National Seashore, where the famed wild ponies live. Off the coast, a Spanish galleon from the 1600s lies at the bottom of the Atlantic. Most historians think the ponies are direct descendants of the horses that swan ashore from that shipwreck.

The ponies technically belong to the Chincoteague Fire Department, who began taking care of them about 80 years ago with a fundraiser-swim. To keep the herd size from growing too large for the island, and to make sure the horses are healthy and fed, the firemen (who are also bonified cowboys) herd the ponies together at the end of July for a short 3.5 minute swim across the Chincoteague Sound to Chincoteague Island, where the town of Chincoteague sits, all cute with little clapboard houses, wildflowers, and docks stretching into the inlets and bays. Check out dozens of pictures and videos about the pony swim online from multiple news sources.

The Chincoteague Fire Department corrals the ponies, and vets check their health. Foals who are old enough to leave their mothers are auctioned off. Some ponies have gone for up to $25,000. The money supports the local volunteer fire department, which is not supported by the town’s budget. The pony who wins the swim (just whoever swims the fastest) is raffled off to a lucky winner. Many of the auctioned ponies are given back to the herd, but some people keep them. You can see the hopeful horse trailers all over town.

The swim is televised, and it’s a good thing there was a jumbo-tron because we couldn’t really see well. We stood in Memorial Park, where people who don’t want to wake up before dawn go. After the swim, the horses rest and then are escorted by cowboys in a parade through the town to the carnival grounds, where they’re fed hay and photographed by fans. The carnival is a buzz of whirling rides, funnel-cake, burgers, and muddied fans. The ponies fatten up for two days in the corral and are then escorted to the shore to swim back to the wildlife refuge (aka Chincoteague National Seashore).

Ironically, I married into a horse family. I almost never ride my in-laws’ horses but my boys grew up loving riding. After my trip this week to Chincoteague, I’m feeling drawn back to the barn for a ride. That will make my mother-in-law really happy.

My mother-in-law is a horse whisperer. It’s a real thing. To watch someone stand in the presence of such power and beauty and to watch that large animal love and obey her is truly a remarkable phenomenon.

Nobody can calm a nervous mare or demand respect from a jittery stallion like she can. I’m not sure if it’s her scent, her intonation, or her touch—but horses fight over her attention and do whatever she tells them to do, even though they could squash her little body like a bug. She’s 78, and she still rides and shows horses. And she wins national championships. Cause that’s what real horse people do.

The rest of us just read.

I have a few conclusions about life now that I’ve seen the ponies swim. You should:

  1. Stand and wait for the things you’re passionate about. (The fans who wanted to be feet away from the ponies when they exited the water stood in long gater boots in the mud since 3 am—that meant 8 hours of not moving, with your feet ensconced in muck. Some people lost their shoes in the mud when they walked out.)
  2. Get out in nature and experience these take-your-breath-away moments. The sights and sounds of the marsh and the ocean—even that endless water vista driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to get there—these things really can’t be duplicated. The hundreds of ponies in the water and on the parade route are truly awe-inspiring.
  3. Give someone an experience. There’s no gift equal to an experience. The lovely townspeople of Chincoteague, instead of loathing the thousands of tourists standing in their front yards, came out with free water, sold snacks, and offered to hose off people’s muddy legs. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves eating seafood, shopping, talking with strangers (Well, mostly my mother-in-law talked to everyone. I usually pretend to be busy. She has that aura, remember. People respond to it, also.)
  4. Care about legacy. The ponies all have names. They’re numbered according to the year they were born. And the foals—seriously, who doesn’t want to watch a fuzzy foal nuzzling his mother?–are listed in guidebooks just like the parents. The ponies are known and allowed to live wild and free. Wish we showed the same grace to all the people in our own country.

It’s the special things that make us set aside time we can’t afford in order to feel revived. We must take the time so we don’t lose our souls to the chaos that feels all-too normal.

Maybe it’s a pony parade. Or a boat ride. Or a bike ride. Or a hike. Or a hammock and a book.

But it’s not work, I can tell you that.

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