This month marks the 90th year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company's Saltwater Cowboys run their annual pony swim. The wild ponies, whose Spanish lineage dates back centuries, are moved from Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, to the fire company's carnival grounds where a selection of foals are auctioned off. But unless there's a fire, rounding up cowboys is sometimes more difficult than ponies.
At a booth to the entrance to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, park ranger Naomi Belton collects park fees and gives directions to the best places to see them.
“About a mile and a half from here on the right-hand side there's a big open clearing, they could be anywhere in that area.”
Off in the distance is the smaller of two herds that belong to the fire company. The larger herd is just north on Assateague Island. Both are rounded up three times a year, twice for health checks and once for the auction, which keeps the herd at 150 ponies.
“If you want to see a gorgeous sight and it's a nice, clear day, get out here real early and they bring the north end ponies down the beach to the south end and they all join up down there. It's so nice to look out there and see the sun rise, the ponies.”
Belton seems to love her job. “Well, I've done it for 20, 28 years.”
But she's not talking about her ranger job.
“I am a member of the volunteer fire company.”
Belton refers to herself as ground crew and doesn't ride with the cowboys. Back in town, I meet Harold Russell. A volunteer for about ten years, Russell was born in 1925, the year the pony swim and auction began.
“I am ninety years old. I growed up with it and my mom and daddy used to carry us all down to the carnival."
While Russell was never a cowboy, for years he ran the whip ride at the fireman's carnival.
Just as a Chincoteague pony might run when it sees you coming, so do some of the Saltwater Cowboys. Wesley Bloxom, a white-haired, leather-faced seventy-something known by the locals as Old Dad, drove away in his red pickup when approached for an interview. Then, one of the island's most famous decoy carvers who is a retired Saltwater Cowboy invites me to his workshop.
“My name is Roe “Duc-Man” Terry. I've been with the fire company since 1976. Been taking part in the round up all my life.”
Terry got his start with the cowboys as a kid. His future father-in-law was on the pony committee.
“He let me ride along with him for years and years in the back of the pick-up making sandwiches for the Saltwater Cowboys. And I graduated up to being the president of the fire company. Now I'm one of the old-timers that kind of watches it go by and just helps whenever I'm needed.”
The original Saltwater Cowboys were watermen who owned horses.
“The old-timers didn't put on cowboy hats and the cowboy boots. They wore their knee boots, their oyster boots, their gum boots. That's how they did their roundups, in their old boots. And they become Saltwater Cowboys.”
Earlier this year, one of the company's favorite stallions, died of old age.
“That was Surfer Dude. He was born in 1992. Beautiful horse. If you can picture a surfer. Brown skin, blonde hair, blue eyes. You got him.”
One of his foals will be put up for auction as part of the buy back program where the winning bidder names him and sends him back to the island to live out his life. In case you miss the round up, you can still see one in October or next April when ponies are brought in for health checks.