A Horse Is a Horse

… unless you’re in Australia – then it’s a “brumby.”

This summer Chincoteague Island, Virginia, will be celebrating its 85th Annual Fireman’s Carnival, Pony Swim and Auction. Sometime during the morning of July 28th (wild ponies are not known to run on schedule), the equine inhabitants of Assateague Island will make their way across Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island, where after a short rest, they will be herded to the carnival grounds for auctioning and the crowning of Queen (or King) Neptune (awarded to the first pony who reaches the shore).

The practice of pony-penning began on the island around the 1850s and has grown into a much anticipated summer celebration, complete with carnival rides, live music, and fireworks, all enjoyed by thousands of locals and visitors every year. The Pony Swim is a fun tradition, but for those who can’t make it in July, visiting Assateague Island National Seashore any other time of year offers a calmer, less crowded, and even closer-up experience with the ponies in their natural environment.

When I share news of the Pony Swim with friends from out of town they often respond with confused looks and a deluge of questions. Wild ponies at the beach? Yes. Who feeds them? Themselves… and sometimes firemen, I think. Why? For the pony auction. And they swim across? Yes. Do they drown? Low tide. How the heck do you herd a wild pony? Saltwater cowboys. Saltwater what?

It appears Misty of Chincoteague has been sadly removed from the common elementary school list of required reading. Thank goodness for YouTube.

But after several such conversations, I’ve realized that perhaps there is something unusual about having to dodge a pony or two while you’re boogie boarding. Which made me wonder, what other islands could be hiding beautiful sandy stallions? The only other beach I frequented as a kid was near Corolla along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where, strangely enough, it is just as normal to find wild ponies roaming the dunes. Turns out wild horses do dwell on many an island from Puerto Rico all the way to Cephalonia, Greece.

Find out where else after the jump.

Cumberland Island, GA
Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, Cumberland Island National Seashore is lined with wide marshes and quiet undeveloped beaches where you can spend a summer day not only with horses, but manatees, sea turtles, alligators, armadillos, dolphins, bobcats, otters, white tail deer, and over 300 species of birds.
In addition to wildlife, visitors will find 87 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including Plum Orchard Mansion and the 1893 First African Baptist Church, which was the site of the wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Carolyn Bessette. Cumberland Island is located seven miles east of St. Marys, Georgia, and is accessible only by water (either private charter or the Plum Orchard Ferry).

‘Ua Huka, Tahiti
The charming islet of ‘Ua Huka is situated in the northern area of the Marquesas Islands, a particularly isolated archipelago with a language unique to Tahiti – “traced directly to the ancient Polynesian tongue of Maohi.” ‘Ua Huka is home to more wild horses than humans, with a human population of less than 600 and a wild horse population of more than 3,000. Many people also come to see the island’s intricate woodcarvings, famous archaeological sites, as well as French Polynesia’s only arboretum. And as there is only one road on ‘Ua Huka, and no car rental companies to speak of, the best way to really explore the island is, you guessed it, on horseback.

Australia – yes all of it.
True to Aussie style, the wild horses in the land down under have a quality nickname. Free-roaming “brumbies” are found all over this island of a continent. While brumby populations thrive (sometimes to the point of being considered pests) throughout the Northern Territory, Queensland, and northern Western Australia, they are quickly disappearing from beaches along the coast. Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world, once had over 200 wild horses, and now has only a few left. North Stradbroke Island, or “Straddie” (the second largest sand island in the world), located just east of Cleveland, was home to several mobs of wild horses up until the late 1960s. Local Brenda Papworth remembers when the horses used to roam the streets at Point Lookout. Many of the houses in the area even had a turnstile as an entry to keep the curious horses from sneaking in for a snack. Brenda shares with us a favorite memory from growing up on the island:

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One lovely memory I have is of being woken before the dawn by my parents to go with my family for a drive along Main Beach to fish. We arrived just as the sun was coming up over the ocean and I was sitting in the sand and could feel it vibrate a little and could hear an unfamiliar noise over the crashing of the waves on the shore. I looked up to see a herd of wild brumbies galloping at top speed over the sand dunes and onto the beach, they didn’t pause or take any notice of us, but just continued on their way down along the hard sand at the water’s edge led by a large black stallion.

Even though the horses are gone, Straddie is still a great place to explore, to go fishing and surfing, and to see wildlife. (Check out their nifty interactive map.) The beautiful Stradbroke Island Beach Hotel (at the site of the old Straddie Pub) is a beautiful place to stay with building design inspired by the manta rays often seen from nearby Point Lookout.

What’s on your beach?

Photo: Caitlin Etherton

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