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Wild ponies of Chincoteague make their annual swim

Thousands of spectators welcome the herd as it crosses the channel from Assateague Island.

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — They are a sight to behold, powerful and majestic. Unspoiled. They are the wild ponies of Virginia's Eastern Shore. And once again, they've arrived at Chincoteague.

On Wednesday morning, about 150 of these beautiful beasts made the annual swim across the channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island, guided by a group called the Saltwater Cowboys.

They made the crossing during slack tide when there is no current and the swim is easier on the animals. The crossing attracted thousands of spectators from across the country and beyond. This was the 97th year of Chincoteague's annual pony swim, following a pause during the pandemic. 

The purpose of the crossing is to separate some of the foals born during the spring, so they can be auctioned. That auction got underway Thursday morning.

RELATED: Bidders spend a record $400K at Chincoteague pony auction

According to Chincoteague officials, the auction serves two main purposes. It helps to control the size of the herd, preventing it from growing too large. And the money raised from the auction helps fund the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. In turn, the fire company uses some of that money to provide veterinary care for the ponies throughout the year.

Not every foal that is auctioned actually leaves the herd. Every year, the fire company selects a few ponies as "buybacks." The person who pays for a "buyback" pony gets to name the animal. Then the foal is returned to the herd on Assateague Island.

Every year, money raised from the sale of one foal goes to a regional charity. Past recipients include Wounded Warriors and Alzheimer's Adult Care.

RELATED: 'The love of the horse never goes away' | 80-year-old equestrian takes on Washington International Horse Show

The annual crossing was made famous by Misty of Chincoteague, a children's novel written in 1947 by Marguerite Henry. It tells the story of the bond that develops between two children and a Chincoteague pony named Misty. It inspired the 1961 film, Misty.

Now here's a Pony Swim fact you probably did NOT know: The Saltwater Cowboys round up the wild ponies at two other times each year, April and October. The animals are corralled on Assateague Island for a health check by a veterinarian.

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