- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. (AP) — A little bit of rain didn’t deter thousands of people from crowding this resort island’s shoreline yesterday to watch wild ponies plunge into the water.

About 150 short, stocky ponies entered the water at Assateague Island, a barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean, at 10:03 a.m., just as showers were letting up.

They crossed a channel to Chincoteague Memorial Park in about 10 minutes, and the rain began again, said Evelyn Shotwell, who stood in muck at the park to watch the famous annual pony swim with her husband and some friends.

“When the ponies hit the water, the people just were standing up and cheering and clapping for the ponies,” said Mrs. Shotwell, office manager for the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce.

One pony kept swimming away from the rest of the herd and had to be rounded up, Mrs. Shotwell said. Another, she said, had to be chased down when it went under a pier and ended up outside the fenced-in area where the ponies rest before being paraded through the streets and penned at the carnival grounds.

Mrs. Shotwell has watched the swim four or five times, but “I still love it,” she said. “When they’re in the water swimming, it’s just so much fun to watch them.”

Each year during the swim — made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel “Misty of Chincoteague” — an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people descend upon the island of about 3,500 residents. Suzanne Taylor, executive director of tourism and marketing for the island, said the rain didn’t seem to hurt the crowd size this year.

“There are people everywhere,” Miss Taylor said. “In fact, we had some angry people that didn’t come on time and missed it. They assumed it was raining and they wouldn’t do it. They do this rain or shine.”

Yearlings and younger will be auctioned today to thin the herd and raise money for the island’s volunteer fire department, which cares for the ponies. Ponies that aren’t sold, as well as those that are donated back to the fire department, will swim back tomorrow to roam free for another year on a national wildlife refuge on Assateague.

This year’s swim was the 78th orchestrated by the fire company, with “saltwater cowboys” — firefighters on horseback — driving the ponies into the water.

The ponies have lived on Assateague for many years, although no one really knows how they got there. One theory is that Colonial settlers hid their horses on the island to avoid paying taxes on livestock. A more romantic version is that the original ponies survived a Spanish galleon wreck.

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