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Chincoteague pony swim a dream come true

— As the herd of wild ponies emerged on the horizon Wednesday morning, Robin Dodge looked across the water to see her childhood fantasy come true.

More than 145 horses were poised at the Assateague Channel for the annual 75-yard swim, a tradition that has outlived most people on this tiny Virginia island.

"This has been my lifelong dream since I was 8 years old," said Dodge, 55, who drove from upstate New York with her husband. Moments later, a voice crackled over the loudspeaker, assuring a crowd that would eventually swell to 40,000 that this was not a dream: "If you can hear me talking, you're here now."

Unlike petting Black Beauty, watching the Pony Swim of Chincoteague is a fantasy that can be lived in adulthood.

For 87 years, the herd owned by the island's volunteer fire company has plunged into the shallow water separating the wildlife refuge of Assateague Island from Chincoteague, where the youngest ponies are auctioned at a carnival. Dodge and thousands of others arrived early — some, days in advance — to watch a picturesque swim of more than six minutes, the longest in recent memory. By Friday, 67 ponies will be sold at auction and about 100 will return to the wild, swimming back across the channel.

Marguerite Henry's novel, "Misty of Chincoteague," immortalized the ponies' trek, lodging the image of wild horses in the hearts of generations of readers. Along with a 1961 movie filmed on location, the island's traditional fundraiser for fire services attracted a loyal following.

"I've been going since I was 6 weeks old. I've never missed a year. Not one," said Thomas W. Bowden, Sr., 61, a lifelong Chincoteaguer who owns the waterfront land where Dodge and hundreds of others paid to get a view of the swim.

"When they swim across, I get happy," he said. "When they go back, I get sad. It's just that one day, but it's enough."

"'Misty' the movie did a lot for the island," said his wife, Yvonne Bowden. "Once they read that book, they want to see it. And then they come back, year after year after year."

At a drive-in movie theater a half-century ago, the ponies of Chincoteague were imprinted on Karen Thunell's childhood dreams.

"I watched the movie when I was 10 years old and fell in love with it," Thunell, who lives near New York City, said from a beach chair. "When I had kids, I made them watch it. Coming here, it's been on my bucket list."

Her children bought her husband a trip to see the Iowa cornfield from the "Field of Dreams" movie for his 60th birthday, and this week bought her a trip here.

"I was envious of him, but not any more," she said.

Thunell watched the movie again this week, just like Dodge, in the Island Roxy Theater. The original Misty is said to have paraded through the aisles on the evening of the premiere, and her footprints are encased in concrete at the box office. The movie plays for free this week, during the height of Chincoteague's tourist season, which is built around the pony swim and auction.

"These 16 days is what sustains us," said Denise Bowden, spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and a cousin of Thomas Bowden's. "And quite honestly, it's what sustains this town."

Legend says the ponies swam to shore from sinking Spanish galleons, but Bowden believes Chincoteague businessmen stashed their livestock on Assateague Island to avoid taxes. By the 1930s, the volunteer fire department took ownership of what had become a wild herd, and the annual swim to the auction became a local tradition that exploded with "Misty of the Chincoteague."

"Marguerite Henry wrote that book, and the doors just went wide open," Denise Bowden said.

With the crowds came higher bids. Each pony fetches between $500 and $10,000. The auction now attracts international buyers, along with a group of women known as the "Buy Back Babes" who pool their money to buy ponies to live out their lives in the wild.

"This is how we buy trucks, ambulances and equipment," said Denise Bowden. "Not only are they our bread and butter — and I know this sounds cliched — but we love our horses."

"Misty of the Chincoteague" resonates even with people who grew up with the pony swim in their backyard. Richard Belcher, 16, said the book enhanced the memories from when he was a 5-year-old on his grandfather's boat, watching the ponies, falling into the water — twice — and then getting a hat from one of the saltwater cowboys.

Belcher said of reading the book, "It was for school the first time. And then for the next three times for pleasure."

Fifth-generation Chincoteauger Donnie Thornton, 51, said even tame ponies sometimes never lose their taste for the wild. He was amazed the first time he rode his pony Girlie Girl on the beach.

"I just thought, she swam here as a girl," Thornton said. "You can't hardly hold her back."

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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