Just as the Chincoteague ponies are horses uniquely adapted to their environment, the Chincoteague Salt Water Cowboys are a breed of cowboy uniquely adapted to their job. What, exactly, is their job?
While the majority of them serve as volunteer fire fighters for the Chincoteague Island Fire department, that’s not the job that has earned them the title of Salt Water Cowboys. Their cowboying job consists of, among other things, spending some wet and wild hours at the end of each July herding the Chincoteague ponies from their year-round home on Assateague Island across a football-field-long stretch of water to Chincoteague Island for the annual Pony Penning and Auction.
While that might not sound like high-paying work (and the Salt Water Cowboys don’t earn a nickel for their efforts) it is vital to the survival of the Fire Department, which owns the Chincoteague Island pony herd and supports itself with the proceeds of the annual Pony Auction. The Pony Auction, due in large part to the efforts of the Salt Water Cowboys, is now the biggest event in the Chincoteague Island calendar, drawing more fifty thousand visitors from around the globe each year.
The Salt Water Cowboys have earned celebrity status among their fellow Chincoteague residents, but their pony collecting duties extend far beyond what the public sees on Pony Penning day. The money earned for the sale of Chincoteague Island ponies each year is used not only for the Fire Department, but to support the pony herd itself. Although they spend their lives in the wild, the ponies are rounded up each spring and fall for inoculations, worming, and hoof trims, and checked for any other injuries. They are also provided with extra feed when necessary.
During the spring and autumn roundups, which happen around during foaling time in April and before the cold weather sets in October; the Salt Water Cowboys are called on again. They’re asked to collect all the ponies, which run in two separate herds in the Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island. The southern herd is taken first to a holding pen by the Woodland Trail before being guided to a larger corral on Beach Road where they are fed, watered, and rested for the night before getting their veterinary treatments.
While the southern herd is being treated, the Salt Water Cowboys have the much larger job of gathering the ponies on the northern range, a process which begins at 7:00 AM and continues until all the stragglers have been brought in. The Salt Water Cowboys are required to be expert riders, because trying to manage their own horses while plowing through marshes, under branches, and along sandy beaches in pursuit of balky ponies is no job for an amateur horseman.
The northern herd is about double the size of the southern one, and the Salt Water Cowboys guide them to an isolated holding pen accessible only to the cowboys on horseback or to the attending veterinarian by vehicle. Tourists can reach it on foot, but only with a great deal of determination.
One thing which makes the job of the Salt Water Cowboys just a bit easier is that, after participating in a few roundups, some the older Chincoteague ponies seem to learn the drill, and start moving to their collection points as soon as they see the Cowboys, bullwhips cracking, headed their way. But there are always plenty of independent pony spirits to keep the Salt Water Cowboys on their game!