One of the world’s most beautiful sights is the wild pony swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague every July. It sets the heart thrumming in a universally spiritual moment that brings about 50,000 people* to the tiny island nestled in the waters between Maryland and Virginia.
Who knew that this event is possibly laced with the rankest discrimination against women in a darkly guarded secret yet to be covered by any news outlet?
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.
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.
In 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.
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 on Chincoteague 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.
** Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company// Pony Penning History
***Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company// Pony FAQ
***** “Youngest Salt Water Cowboy in First Pony Penning” by Misty Thornton and Robert Boswell, July 27, 2010, Enfold (wildpoytales.info/archives/1283) Island Life, Pony Tales
***** Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company List of Members (cvfc3.com/members/volunteer)
******* “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.