No way was Gail Rubin going to buy a horse.
Sure, her 10-year-old daughter had taken riding lessons, and Ms. Rubin had read Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague" as a bedtime story. Ms. Rubin even had agreed to make the pony swim and auction her daughter's vacation last year, after Sarah showed her a news clipping about the annual event on Chincoteague, which begins today.
"She said, 'Look, Mom, it's a real thing -- can we go to the swim?' " recalls Ms. Rubin, a marketing director in Minneapolis. "We went with the clear understanding that there would be no talk of horses for us."
And there wasn't any talk -- just a surprise purchase. Ms. Rubin, who had seen her daughter enraptured by the foals as they swam across the channel and entered the sale ring, bid and bought one without telling her daughter what she was doing.
"Watching her looking at those horses -- I guess I'm the one who got seduced!" says Ms. Rubin, describing the impulse that would take the 5-month-old colt named Buck from eastern Virginia all the way to the upper Midwest.
The pony swim opens a two-day event that has been a fund-raiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company since 1924. About 170 horses are rounded up on Assateague Island, and then driven in a short swim across to Chincoteague. Ponies between 3 months and 5 months old are sold at auction, from 50 to 80 sold each year, said Ryan Terry, a Chincoteague resident who helps with the annual event.
The swim is today and the auction tomorrow.
The average price last year ranged between $600 and $800, Mr. Terry said.
The horses sold go all over the United States, with some last year going as far as Oklahoma, Florida and Colorado, as well as the Atlantic states. The event draws thousands of people who crowd the tiny barrier island off the Virginia coast.
"I was just entranced by the magic," Ms. Rubin says of her 1993 visit to Chincoteague. "It just kind of evolved -- it unfolded."
Ms. Rubin says that everything fell into place for her daughter's pony. When the idea occurred to her, she didn't have a lot of cash -- but the Chincoteague fire department, which sponsors the pony auction, takes credit cards. "Buck was a Visa guy!" she recalls.
Then she hesitated because she didn't know how to get the horse back to Minnesota. But a couple behind her at the auction were from River Falls, Wis., just across the St. Croix River from Minneapolis. They had a horse trailer with a vacant stall, and they'd take an equine passenger for a reasonable fee.
"I had no more excuses!" says Ms. Rubin. So she casually asked her daughter: "If you could pick one, which one would you pick?"
No hesitation from Sarah.
"Number 9 came down the chute," Ms. Rubin remembers. "He was the biggest one. It took four people to hold him."
So she set a mental limit of $600 and bid. "It was going, going, gone for $600!" she says. "I said, 'Guess what, Sarah -- that's your horse.' She was stunned."
The impulse born on a hot, dusty Thursday a year ago was a good one, Ms. Rubin says. Having a horse has taught her daughter some important things: patience, responsibility and commitment.
Because they live in a condominium in downtown Minneapolis -- "It doesn't quite fit with the pet policy!" Ms. Rubin says with a laugh -- the horse is kept on a farm 30 miles away.
She and Sarah, now 11, go out there several times a week to feed and train Buck.
"It is a commitment -- it's somewhere between a dog and a kid, closer to the kid side!" says Ms. Rubin. But Sarah, who's been riding since she was 5, has made the commitment to Buck and is reaping the rewards of pet ownership.
"She's at horse camp right now. With pictures of Buck!" Ms. Rubin said earlier this week.
"She thinks she's one of the luckiest girls alive. And of course, she is. . . . She's a city kid with her own horse."
Her happiness is echoed by others who attended last year's sale.
Susan Chanoski of White Marsh bought a foal for her daughter, Katie, now 5.
"The children named it, so of course its name is Misty!" she says. "She's lovely; I wouldn't trade her for love nor money. We'd had a couple of little Shetland ponies and I knew people who'd bought Chincoteague ponies, so we went to the sale."
Like Sarah Rubin, Ms. Chanoski's four children had read Ms. Henry's book.
"That book is standard reading for third-graders," she says. "The older two had read it in school."
Although her veterinarian had some reservations about the pony because it was wild, Ms. Chanoski says Misty has turned out to be a good pet.
"She lays down in the field and my little ones lay down with her. She couldn't be any nicer."
And Ms. Chanoski has hopes for next year, or the year after, when Misty will be old enough for riding.
"She's got that Chincoteague mane with that sparkly stuff. When she's cleaned up and brushed, it looks like glitter. She's flashy in the show ring," she says.
Sarah Rubin's Buck is not the only Chincoteague pony who's spent the last year a long way from the Atlantic. Sabrina Bykowski's colt, Phantom, whose name is also found in the Henry book, lives on the family's 300-acre farm in Salem, Wis., with his 13-year-old owner.
"It's been a real good experience," says her mother, Barbara Bykowski. "She picked him out and then my son-in-law bid on him.
"It's a little girl's dream come true."
For at least three little girls among last year's buyers, a year with a Chincoteague pony has turned out to be a special one.
"I think they're kind of growing up together," Ms. Rubin says of Sarah and Buck. "I think it's pretty special."
SWIM AND SALE
The pony swim and sale is a two-day event that raises funds for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The ponies will swim across the channel between Chincoteague and Assateague islands today. The estimated time for the swim is 8:15 a.m. Fire department spokesman Roe Terry cautions that the precise time depends on the tides.
After the swim, the horses will rest briefly before they are driven through the town of Chincoteague to the carnival grounds, located on South Main Street. Tomorrow morning, the auction begins at 8 a.m. on the carnival grounds.
For additional information, call the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce at (804) 336-6161.