CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — Brandy Farrell traveled all the way from Canada for the Chincoteague Pony Swim.
Farrell, 55, a bookkeeper from Hamilton, Ontario, 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, which might mean more to her than the typical 50-something: Farrell has leukemia and has been in remission for 12 years after a 2009 bone marrow transplant.
And 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 vantage point.
The pony swim returned Wednesday morning for the first time since the pandemic. 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 to claim the best spots.
Shortly after 9 a.m., a red-orange flare shot up from a Coast Guard boat, signaling 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 over in four and a half minutes.
The event and the festivities weren’t just for a good show. The swim raises money to buy equipment for the fire department, pays the roughly $45,000 yearly vet bill for the ponies, and funds 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 auctioned. 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 was held online. This year, it’s online and live. The first foal to come ashore — a black-and-white male this year — doesn’t get sold. Instead, he’s christened King Neptune and will be raffled.
Evelyn Shotwell, director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, which helps to advertise the swim, said it goes back to 1925 and started with just a handful of people.
“An event that has that longevity sort of speaks for itself,” Shotwell said.
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 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 afterwards, he said, “I thought it was cool how fast they could swim.” He wants to return next year.
Some of the attendees said they were first-timers, but Daniel Horseman who lives in Delaware, has come all 50 of his years, except for the eight he lived in Boston. He grew up on a horse farm and has read the Misty books a few times. In 2015, he bought a Chincoteague pony at the auction — the cheapest and second-to-last across the channel — for $675. He still has it.
He keeps coming back because “it’s fun and you just get attached to the horses.”
After the event, Farrell was still in awe. When she 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.”