Arts & Culture

A 90-Year Chincoteague Tradition—and a New Legacy

Celebrating a special legacy at this year’s pony swim

You might remember Misty, but what about Surfer Dude? “Misty was probably the most famous pony of all,” says Chincoteague Island firefighter Denise Bowden of the mare who was immortalized in Marguerite Henry’s 1947 classic children’s novel and 1961 film. “But Surfer Dude comes in a real close second. He was that iconic stallion. He was a handsome thing.”

photo: Photo courtesy of Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce

From left: The 1947 book, Misty of Chincoteague; Ponies swim to shore.

Surfer Dude became a favorite for visitors to Chincoteague Island during the annual wild pony roundup and swim, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this week. For twenty-three years, Surfer Dude roamed among the beloved wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. Tall and dark, the stallion bore two striking features: his long, blonde mane and mismatched eyes—one brown and one a vibrant blue. Sadly the famous festival will also mark another milestone this year: the passing of Surfer Dude in May. The volunteer firefighters who tend the ponies found his remains on the Southern end of Assateague and believe he died of natural causes—age and a harsh winter can bring even the strongest horses down. In Surfer Dude’s honor, the statue that stands at the entrance to the carnival grounds has been painted to show the stallion’s iconic golden mane and blue eye.

photo: Photo courtesy of Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company

Surfer Dude takes a snack break.

Nearly 150 ponies were rounded up on Assateague Island over the weekend. On Wednesday, the firefighters and ponies will swim at slack tide across the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague for the annual auction. Approximately sixty foals will be auctioned on Thursday morning, including the last four or five of Surfer Dude’s progeny—including a gorgeous solid black colt. Not only does the auction ensure a well-managed herd size, it’s a major fundraiser for the fire company, which provides veterinary care for the ponies throughout the year.

On Friday, the remaining ponies will return to Assateague to run free until next year’s roundup. Another of Surfer Dude’s offspring, Riptide, will be among them. At six years old, he has inherited his father’s legacy.

photo: Photos courtesy of Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company

Portraits of Surfer Dude’s son Riptide.

“Surfer Dude passed the torch over to his son, and such is life in the animal kingdom,” Bowden says. “Riptide will keep that bloodline going. And his mane is even blonder than his dad’s.”

photo: Photo courtesy of Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce

Ponies run during the annual Chincoteague pony roundup and swim.