Countdown to Chincoteague pony swim: Ups and downs for wild ponies this year

Wild ponies are herded into the Assateague Channel to for their annual swim to Chincoteague Island, on July 25, 2012 in Chincoteague, Virginia. Every year the wild ponies are rounded up to be auctioned off by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. (Getty Images/Mark Wilson)

Births, deaths, rescues and recoveries are part of life, both human and equine.

Tens of thousands are expected to gather for the 99th annual Chincoteague pony swim on Wednesday, July 24, when dozens of wild ponies will make their trek across the Assateague Channel. They’ll be auctioned the next day.

The horses were made famous in the 1947 classic children’s novel “Misty of Chincoteague” by author Marguerite Henry.

The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, in Chincoteague, Virginia, oversees the fundraising auction and manages the wild pony herd on Assateague Island. The fire company said 2024 has been “a roller-coaster ride.” Assateague Island’s northern two-thirds are in Maryland, and the southern third is in Virginia.

In periodic updates on its Facebook page, the fire company said approximately 60 foals have been born this year.

In a Tuesday post, the fire company said two foals died within their first few weeks of life. The department said domestically, approximately 7% of foals die.

Also, a mare that underwent a difficult labor, requiring human help to deliver a stillborn foal, received painkillers and antibiotics, worsened, and was euthanized.

There have been some uplifting stories, according to the fire company.

Last week, a foal was discovered on Assateague Island, without a mother nearby. The fire department monitored the situation, and eventually a mare named Penny “seemed to have some affection for the foal and upon further inspection we discovered that she had in fact foaled and that this was likely hers.”

The department was able to grab the pony, “and get it in a trailer with Penny reluctantly following behind.” After transporting the ponies to the carnival area, “thankfully we were able to get it to nurse but will be administering colostrum just in case.”

Some older ponies have been getting medical treatment, according to the fire department.

“The four Swamp Cancer Ponies have all made a full recovery from the disease itself and are now undergoing meticulous foot trimming to allow them to be completely sound for island life,” according to a May 6 post.

What’s called swamp cancer is actually a fungal disease, which often causes excessive tissue growth in horses, requiring surgery.

The pony swim is held on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. In 2020 and 2021 the in-person swims were canceled, and the auctions were virtual.

As of March 2024, the National Park Service said the horse population for Assateague Island National Seashore was 73, consisting of 30 stallions and 43 mares.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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