Day Trips

Dark Secrets of the Chincoteague and Assateague Island Ponies

This summer, before you take your horse-crazy teenaged daughter to Chincoteague to see the pony swim from Assateague Island, there are few facts you might want to know. The story is dark, less than romantic, and a hard truth about how women are perceived by men yet today.

The wild ponies of Chincoteague belong to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department in a grant from the Federal government.  Each year the ponies are moved from Assateague Island to Chincoteague to allow vets to inspect them and to auction off animals that exceed the 150 horse herd limitations.**  The average price of a Chincoteague Pony, also known as an Assateague Horse, is about $1300, though prices as high as $11,700*** have been bid.  The money goes for a great cause, buying equipment for the volunteer firefighters. ****

The men who round up the horses are affectionately known as Salt Water Cowboys.  Many are from the fire department, but not all.  They are not only bound together in a brotherhood of spirit, but also of blood, as sons often follow in their father’s footsteps in this labor of love.

Notice I said men, fathers and sons?


The Salt Water Cowboys appear to refuse to let a single female, no matter how qualified, into their tight knit group.

Perhaps the women and girls who go this year should bring picket signs with them asking where the female riders are?

If you check the internet, you will not find any reference to this possibly discriminatory practice – at least none that I could find.  The stories are romantically portrayed – the beauty of the horses, the wonderful charity and wildlife refuge supported by these men’s efforts.  However, my neighbor is one of these Salt Water Cowboys.  His twenty-year-old daughter is one of the best equestrians in the state.  This is a young woman who has worked in a landscape business moving trees with her bare hands during the day, and in the evenings and her days off, works her own business taking care of and training horses.  Not only is she knowledgeable and strong, with blue ribbons lining her bedroom, her sweet attitude and hard work make her one of the neighborhood’s most adored females.

I am extremely troubled when her mother tells me that this young woman has been directly and frankly informed that she will never be permitted to join the Salt Water Cowboys, nor ever ride to gather the herd and pen the horses, merely because she’s female.

DSC02229In a fit of compassion, this year, she was told she’d be allowed to muck stalls and clean tack – as if playing Cinderella to her often less accomplished male cohorts somehow makes things better!

What I’d like to know is how this potentially discriminatory practice continues in a society where we feel we’ve conquered the most overt forms of discrimination against women.  I’d also like to know why no news correspondent has jumped at the chance to cover this story.

To be fair, when I contacted the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department’s PR Spokesperson and member since 1992, Denise Bowden, she told me that “It’s not that females aren’t exactly not allowed to join, but there is a many years long wait list, and they are only allowing fire volunteers to join at this time.”  She did confirm, however, that there is not a single female currently riding among the Salt Water Cowboys.

Considering the number of qualified horsewomen in this area, and the long tradition of penning ponies, doesn’t this seem strange?

My neighbor lives more than three and a half hours, from Chincoteague.  It is unlikely he is an active member of that fire department.  In addition, quite a fuss was made about a young boy, Tyler Marks, being inducted into the Saltwater Cowboys at the age of 16 in 2010.*****  My neighbor’s daughter has been involved with the group as an observer and supporter since she was born.  How many years on the wait list does that account for?  Stories of fathers and sons abound, but not even the two token female officers, Denise Bowden, V.P. or Cathy Repsher, Asst. Sec.,****** the only women on the roster, currently appear to ride with the group.


There are female firefighters throughout the country, are none of them qualified to ride with the Salt Water Cowboys?

In a July 2007 article in the Washington Post, group member, Eddie Thornton, was quoted as saying, ” There’s really no training.  I mean, you have to be capable of riding a horse and know how to control a horse.”  When reporter, Karen Hart, asked “So, if someone who wasn’t a part of the fire company wanted to be a saltwater cowboy, how would they go about joining the roundup?” Thornton replied, “They would have to talk to the pony committee chariman and tell them how long they’ve been riding.  And if they have an available spot, they may be able to go, they may not.”*******

Too bad Ms. Hart didn’t ask him whether or not they had to be male.

DSC02240 DSC02237

The Newbery winning children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague (1947) inspired generations of girls to take up riding.  The 1961 film, Misty, based on that book, is still a favorite among girls today.  At the roundup onChincoteague during the last Wednesday and Thursday of every July, the number of women and girls far exceed those of males.********  They look on with glee, never knowing that the event will possibly forever mark them as different, as inferior and separate, by a band of men known as the Salt Water Cowboys of Chincoteague.71XzmB2j3ML._SL1000_

* Wikipedia

** Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company// Pony Penning History

***Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company// Pony FAQ

**** Wikipedia

***** “Youngest Salt Water Cowboy in First Pony Penning” by Misty Thornton and Robert Boswell, July 27, 2010, Enfold ( Island Life, Pony Tales

***** Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company List of Members (

******* “A Cowboy of Cincoteague’s Pony Express” by Karen Hart, Special to The Washington Post, Sunday, Jully 22, 2007

******** “Chincoteague Island: “Saltwater Cowboys” Round up wild Ponies. (Local) by Erika Reif, Staff writer, The Virginian-Piolot, July 31, 1997.

11 replies »

  1. That is darn annoying and upsetting. I had no idea this discrimination was entrenched, but I will look at this event with a jaundiced view from now on. This boy’s club attitude is really ridiculous.

  2. Someone has to be willing to sue — a major investment of time and an emotional rollercoaster. But the book has had such a grip on the imaginations of generations of girls, I hope someone makes the sacrifice and puts an end to this via the courts. With luck, just filing a suit would lead to a quick resolution. It’s hard to imagine the Saltwater Cowboys wanting the PR nightmare (and the expense) of a federal court proceeding that they would almost certainly lose. Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention, Diana.

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  4. This is so wrong….I can’t believe it is being tolerated in this era. I watched the swim the other day and wanted to be a Saltwater Rider. So, I started to research this and found Diana Belchase’s article stating women are not allowed. What can I do……who can I contact?

    • Jan, thanks for caring about this issue. One easy thing to do is to share this post as widely as possible. The more eyes on this situation the harder it will be for them to continue this disgraceful practice. I’ve tried reaching out to local media and am astounded that they don’t think this is news worthy. Perhaps you will have better luck. But in the meantime share and spread the word. I’m so glad you stopped by. Hugs!

      • Diana,
        Thank you for your reply. I, honestly, didn’t think I would get a response. I want to change this. I think your problem is that, you say, you contacted local media. They are not going to expose their community. I am a retired grandmother (65) with nothing but time on my hands. I was thinking I should find my way to 60 Minutes……am I nuts?!

        • Go for it Jan! Let me know if you get a response from them. The more shows we all try, the better our chances. But if we keep passing this and similar posts along, too, the better our chance of getting the issue in front of some news producer eventually. Whether they read it directly (or one of their grandmothers brings it to their attention, Wink), someone with clout must hear about this bastion of prejudice against females.

  5. I have seen multiple photos and video from this year’s 97th pony penning of women mounted up! This was the first time I have seen them participating! 😀

    • How wonderful and finally about time! This article was originally written in 2015. It has been decades upon decades of discrimination against women. It’s nice to know things have changed and I hope in small part it’s due to all the people who have participated and left comments here. Thank you for keeping me updated! If you have photos, or more information, I would love to receive them. You can contact me through my contact page or on Facebook.
      Diana Belchase

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