Chincoteague pony swim poses unique challenges for local veterinarian

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Far from the Western ranges roams another herd of wild horses that have a decidedly different experience than wild mustangs when it comes to roundups and adoptions. These much more docile animals are the 150 or so Chincoteague horses gathered annually to swim across the 400-yard channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island in Virginia on the last Wednesday in July.

Chincoteague ponies
Chincoteague ponies make their annual swim across the Assateague Channel. The tradition dates to the early 1920s as a way for the pony auction to happen on Assateague and Chincoteague islands. The carnival portion of the event started in 1925 when the town authorized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to host the event to raise money after a string of disastrous fires in Chincoteague.

"They're good swimmers. The only issues we have are some minor cuts from oyster and clam shells," said Dr. Charles "Charlie" Cameron, who not only serves as the head veterinarian for the event but also is responsible for the horses' health status year-round.

Dr. Cameron was asked to help with the event in 1990 after two mares died during the previous year's swim without a clear diagnosis. The following year, Dr. Cameron figured out the problem—hypocalcemia.

"It's a rare occurrence, but not rare in this situation. There were mares lactating and their muscles started firing out of control. It's easy to treat if you catch it early enough," Dr. Cameron said, noting hypocalcemia usually affects mares with foals at weenable ages. The summer heat can push them over the edge.

Since then, Dr. Cameron's been well-prepared and has treated as many as a dozen mares for the condition during one event. He also has made sure to perform preventative medicine on the horses, including deworming them twice a year and vaccinating them every spring, which the Painter, Va.-based veterinarian says has helped conception rates and overall health.

Although the horses run wild on the wildlife refuge on Assateague Island, they technically are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Rounding up the horses every July and selling the ready-to-be-weaned foals raises money for the department and stabilizes the herd population.

Before the swim, Dr. Cameron carefully evaluates the herd and selects the late-pregnancy mares and young foals that are better off not making the swim. These horses are taken over the channel by trailer to the nearby Chincoteague carnival grounds, leaving the older foals, other mares, and stallions to be herded into the water.

"Foals do great if they don't get separated from their mom, but if separated, they get confused. One foal got out mid-way and then decided to turn back," Dr. Cameron said, and he was forced to bring the foal onto his boat.

Once Dr. Cameron has made sure all the horses have safely made the swim, they are herded to the Chincoteague Island carnival grounds in preparation for the auction the next day, Thursday. As each foal is presented, Dr. Cameron examines it and estimates its age for the auctioneer. About 70 foals are auctioned annually.

The day after, Friday, is time for the swim. Foals younger than 3 months remain on Chincoteague with their mothers until the fall. The remaining mares and stallions are herded to the shore to swim back to their Assateague Island home.

Last year marked the 82nd year of the round-up, swim, and auction. It also was the 60th anniversary of Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague"—the children's novel that brought popularity to the island's main event, which brings in 40,000 visitors each year.