Just before dawn on a late July morning, I stood next to a Mister Whippy ice cream truck with a throng of people looking out over a swamp on the far eastern shore of Virginia. We were weighing our options. In a couple of hours a herd of wild ponies would thrash through the water and climb ashore on the other side of the swamp. A small group of people already stood there, on a strip of solid land. If we joined them, we’d be closer to the ponies, close enough to see their nostrils flare above the waterline as they pawed their way across; close enough to stroke their manes once they made landfall. We’d get to shake hands with the Saltwater Cowboys, the fraternity of wranglers who convince the ponies to swim. Every summer the cowboys round up the foals and mares on the barrier island of Assateague and swim them across a channel to the touristy island of Chincoteague. The ponies are then paraded through the winding streets to the island’s fairgrounds, and are auctioned to fund the volunteer fire department.
Not everyone who came to the Chincoteague Island Pony Swim crossed the swamp; there were other places to watch the event. Some in the crowd chose the comfort of the nearby Veteran’s Memorial Park, which was outfitted with jumbotrons and a sea of camp chairs; others stayed near the Mister Whippy truck and watched the landing through binoculars. Crossing to the far side of the swamp is for the diehards: pony swim veterans, little kids who have made their parents wake up early, as if it were Christmas morning, and horse-loving grown-ups like me who want to see something they’ve been imagining since they were ten.
The swamp, a pit of black muck, stinking of sulfur, was bordered on one side by a giant pier reserved for press photographers, and on the other side by a complex of ugly, vinyl-sided condos with a strictly enforced no-trespassing policy. I stood next to a woman from Cincinnati who was engaged in a debate with her eight-year-old daughter about whether or not to cross. The girl had liked the idea in the abstract, but now she wasn’t so sure. I understood how she felt.
“Did you read the Misty books?” I asked the girl, referring to Misty of Chincoteague, the children’s book by Marguerite Henry that forms the foundational legend of this place. Henry came to the pony swim in the mid-1940s and wrote a book about a small foal she met, and eventually bought, called Misty. The girl, clinging to a stuffed pony, nodded yes, and looked up at me. “So did I,” I told her. I assumed that Henry’s depiction of the pony swim was why we were all there. We wanted to see something in real life that had previously lived for us only as fiction, a spectacle that existed most vividly on the other side of the swamp.
We were soon knee-deep in mud, hoping not to be thigh-deep. The girl’s father had scoped out the best route the night before and led us close to the pier, working on the theory that the pilings might keep us out of the worst of the muck. We jumped from one patch of reeds to another, and when we finally got to the other side, we stood on the only small band of solid ground between the swamp and open water. I was then among the pony swim zealots, looking out over the channel as the sun finally rose high, waiting for the wild creatures to swim toward captivity.
On a map, Assateague appears as a long green strip, denoting national park land, and runs thirty-seven miles up the east side of Virginia—the last land before open ocean. Chincoteague, just seven miles long and full of ice cream stores and cheap beach shops, lies half a mile to the west of Assateague, tucked between the long barrier island and the mainland. Driving up the coast from Virginia Beach to Chincoteague I pass areas that are verdant, rural, and poor. A discontinued train line connects abandoned tracks and ghost stations. Boarded-up Victorian houses and dollar stores dot the landscape. But the cliché of rural decline isn’t all that you see as you drive—there is an enormous NASA flight facility and a marine science station on the mainland just before the bridge to the island.
Half the herd of wild ponies lives on the northern section of Assateague and belongs to the federal government, which manages them with a light touch—the most the feds do is shoot annual birth control darts into their rumps. The other half of the herd lives on a small southern section of Assateague and belongs to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which has managed them since 1924, when it first used the annual pony penning and auction to help pay for its equipment. Since then it has been dutifully fighting the island’s fires as well as tending to its half of the ponies—it deworms and vaccinates them, and treats injuries. It’s the firemen’s job to keep the ponies somewhere near the wild end of the gradient between feral and tame, but not so wild that they die of hunger or disease.
Legend has it that the ponies arrived on the island as valiant survivors of a Spanish shipwreck hundreds of years ago off the coast of Virginia. This origin myth, almost certainly apocryphal, was immortalized in Part One of Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague. The book, along with its three sequels and 1961 movie adaptation, has kept the two islands and their ponies vibrant in the imaginations of children, and was how I first learned of the swim.
I read the book during a three-year-long horse fever dream that started in fourth grade. I nurtured my love for horses in private, even in secret; the thought of them kept me up at night the way the thought of kissing the blond boy in my algebra class would when I was thirteen. That is to say, it was a sensual love, and it existed more in the realm of the imagined than the real.
My horse love was fed by literature, starting with the Saddle Club series, the Baby-Sitters Club of horse books. The series features four girls, all a little different in the way of a fictional female foursome—in this case, a serious one, a spoiled one, a tomboy, and a perfectionist—brought together by their love of horses. There are more than a hundred books in the series; I could read one in a single afternoon, huffing each book for the horse high and then forcing my parents back to the library for more. These forays into equestrian fiction led me to Misty and National Velvet and My Friend Flicka, books I deemed classy because of the jacket designs. I bought an encyclopedia of horses. I learned the different parts of a horse’s foot, how to put on a shoe to prevent hooves from splitting; knew the names for the many types of combs and brushes that hung in the tack room of a stable. Long before I had been on the back of a horse, I knew that a trot was bouncy and a canter smooth. But I longed to feel it.
I was hardly alone in my obsession. In the halls of my middle school, there were horse girls even more dedicated than I was, ones who wore T-shirts with the names of their stables and won ribbons at competitions. Ones with high, tight ponytails and Coke-bottle-curled bangs. Ones that had long since left behind the fuchsia mane of My Little Pony to shovel the manure of the real thing. “She even looks like a horse,” we’d whisper cruelly.
There is something of a stink that clings to the horse girl. Her locker is covered in glittery stickers and photos of horses. She has Breyer ponies lined up at home on a top shelf. She is obsessed. She is in love. She seems to have no need for the trappings of boyfriends and best friends.
And although the line of female equestrians includes the Spartan charioteer Cynisca and the brassy sharpshooter Annie Oakley, there is also Catherine the Great, whose proclivities as a horsewomen became fodder for centuries of false speculation that she died having sex with her horse. But the horse girl doesn’t seem to care about the whispers and rumors. She is enraptured. She revels in the many kinds of love a girl has for a horse.
The psychoanalyst Anna Freud theorized several reasons a young girl might be interested in horses: primitive autoerotic desire, owing to the sensations of riding; overidentification with a caregiver, owing to the meticulous grooming required; phallic sublimation, owing to the desire to take control of a beast; or penis envy. The girl wants to ride the horse, care for the horse, master the horse, or become the horse. Maybe she even wants to have sex with the horse. Maybe she wants to do it all.
I started riding horses as a ten-year-old at a stable I had found in the yellow pages of my parents’ mid-Michigan phone book. I don’t remember much about my first horseback rides. I remember the currycombs, the saddle room, and the shared helmets that gave me lice. I remember getting to the stable a half hour early and clipping a lead to both sides of a horse’s halter and pushing on his leg just right so I could pick the stones out of his hooves. And I remember the day I was allowed to try to jump.
When a horse runs fast, it feels clunky and windy; you can feel the horse’s feet land hard. When it jumps it really does feel like flying, but you’ve got a friend beneath you. You are strangely both in and out of control. You’ve relinquished your body to another animal, but that animal is at your command. You’ve allowed yourself to blur the lines between human and animal, between powerful and powerless. The first time I jumped, really jumped, I stood up in the saddle and leaned forward like a jockey, and the horse exploded over the barrier. As small as the fence was, it was exhilarating. I was good at it, or as good as you can be at a feat performed by another animal. I wanted to do it again and again.
Before coming to Chincoteague, I called the chamber of commerce to ask about the schedule of activities and to find places to stay—the festival’s internet presence was minimal, and the listings on Airbnb were spotty. After receiving the relevant information from the woman on the other end of the phone, I asked her who typically attends the festival. She paused and thought about it. “I’d say it’s equal parts little girls, Amish people, and bucket-listers.”
As I stood at the far end of the swamp, I found many of those people, and others besides. I was in a scrum of families and people holding selfie sticks, some wearing camouflage printed with images of dead leaves and rocks, others with perfect manicures and coiffed hair, tending to crabby boys and girls who wanted to know when the ponies would arrive.
An announcer with a microphone sat on the edge of the pier with the press and their telescopic cameras. Her voice boomed across the swamp. She didn’t recite a play-by-play or provide much pertinent information; instead, she told corny jokes and recited well-rehearsed aphorisms. “The mud’ll wash off,” she said to the latecomers who were still trekking through the swamp. “But the memories will last a lifetime.” Later, referring to the salty-death smell that rose from the swamp: “I tried to get the folks at Yankee Candle to make this into a scent.”
I struck up a conversation with two women sitting in beach chairs who wore bedazzled visors and yoga pants. This was their third time attending the swim, they told me, although they claimed their commitment was due more to the beach and their yearly girls’ weekend than to any particular love of ponies. And yet they had risen at 4:00 a.m. to walk through the muck and secure a prime viewing location.
“Where do you think the ponies came from?” I asked the blonde with a sensible short haircut.
“What do you mean?” she said. “They came from that Spanish ship.”
“I read that they might be escaped livestock,” I said. According to the National Park Service website, the Assateague wild horses were not stowaways but descendants of horses that European settlers brought to the islands. Early settlers put their horses out to pasture on Assateague in order to avoid grazing fees elsewhere, and some got away. The horses became feral, their hair coarse and long, and they took to eating the grass of the salt marshes to stay alive.
The woman looked at me like I was crazy. “That’s not very fun,” she said.
Across the channel, a puff of red smoke shot off a boat and I heard a loud, otherworldly crack. The ponies had started to swim. The cowboys had herded them to the shore and into the water. The sound of sharp pops echoed in the air. I asked the people next to me what the noise was.
“An electric whip,” someone told me. Months later, I would learn from the PR rep for the fire department that there is no such thing as an electric whip, and that the sounds I’d heard were in fact a regular whip being snapped in the air. Cracking the whip in the air and against the water, she said, helps the firefighters herd the horses toward the shore. “You may be surprised to know that these ponies swim all the time,” she wrote.
I’d heard this sentiment over and over again from those I met on the island: that the swim was in some sense “natural” for the ponies. The story of the Spanish ship established the ponies as excellent swimmers with little risk of drowning; part of the herd needed to be sold off in order to keep it healthy. Almost everyone on the island claimed that the relationship between pony and human was a symbiotic one—we were doing each other a favor.
I was willing to grant them some of that. I grew up near enough to farms to know there is some brutality in the process of animal husbandry, a brutality that people who live in cities very rarely let themselves see. If we are going to ride horses, we have to tame them; if we are going to live near wild animals, we will sometimes need to thin a herd. But hearing the whips crack unnerved me. Watching the scene asked me to hold two truths at once. The ponies are wild creatures that, like deer or raccoons, need to be managed. But in the mythology of the swim, the ponies are also presented as transcendent companions, animals who might offer up their manes for braiding and their backs for riding. Here, the ponies were both docile pets and feral beasts, animals that need to be convinced to swim so they might be ridden by little girls.
Two Saltwater Cowboys, middle-aged men atop full-size horses, patrolled the beach. They resisted any visible display of pleasure for the sake of their cowboy aesthetic. One of them had tied a fly mask emblazoned with the Confederate flag onto his horse’s face. These cowboys were positioned to corral the ponies when they landed. Other cowboys manned the other side of the channel, herding the ponies into the water. A group of cowboys and spectators followed the herd. As the ponies swam, small white boats on either side kept them from veering off course.
“They’re moving pretty fast,” the announcer said. A child next to me asked his parents if he could have an egg-salad sandwich, raising his voice a bit above the commotion and the sound of the whips. Everyone craned their necks to get a glimpse, holding their phones in the air like periscopes. We could see the pony heads poking above the water like alligators.
“Watching the ponies swim is like listening to the national anthem!” the announcer cried. And I’ll say this—it really was. As the ponies bobbed through the brackish water, I felt confused in the same way I do whenever I hear the first chords of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: somehow proud and ashamed at once. As the whips cracked and the wild ponies swam, the scene became like a live-action postcard for patriotism, a living metaphor for the contradictions that have formed this country.
A low roar and a cheer, and then the ponies were on shore, shaking the water off themselves like dogs. We all congregated by a plastic streamer that made a flimsy barrier between us and the horses. Foals nursed on their mothers’ low-hanging teats. Competing mares reared up on their hind legs and pawed at each other. One horse let loose what seemed like a gallon of urine into the swamp. “They don’t seem at all disturbed,” one woman said, as if reassuring herself.
After almost everyone had left to trudge across the swamp, I reached over the barrier and touched one of the mares—a palomino with a dark mane, her head lowered just a bit. She flinched, whickered, and looked me in the eye. In that moment, I wanted so much to have her, and I also wanted her to never be had by anyone.
I spent the afternoon after the swim in the Museum of Chincoteague Island, a small, jagged-roofed building filled with oddities and artifacts meant to tell the island’s story. Carved wooden waterfowl sat on top of shelves under a sign that read Crazy for Coot. Coot, a label explained, was a type of waterfowl used as a model for decoys, the trade of which was one of the island’s early industries. In a back corner, I found pictures of a free black community that once lived on the island. The labels mentioned that there had also once been families on the island who owned enslaved people. Chincoteague, the museum made clear, hadn’t always been “pony island,” even if the animals had become the most popular reason to visit.
In the center of the museum was a full-size mounted pony labeled Misty, standing in front of photographs of Marguerite Henry and copies of the book. I watched a seven-year-old girl stroke the taxidermied creature. The girl’s hair was disheveled, her clothes unkempt in the way of a child that age, as though neither she nor her parents could deal with the trouble of dress. The pony’s hair was matted, too, its face dirty.
“That’s not the real Misty, is it?” I asked the docent. I meant it as a joke.
“Oh, yes! They taxidermied Misty after she died!” she told me. The little girl stared into Misty’s plastic eyes, and I wondered again what it was that made her love this animal so much, what it was that made us both stand here and look at a long-dead hide.
One of the first art therapists, Edith Kramer, noticed that little girls draw more horses than boys do; she said boys are more often interested in drawing mechanical objects. Kramer wrote that girls’ bodies don’t have the same mechanical quality as boys’—she equated erection and flaccidity with the workings of a machine—and so they look elsewhere for experiences of power. “Large animals that can be induced to lend their strength to the people astride their backs seem on the other hand to be particularly suited to express the little girls’ fantasy of possessing a penis, or of gaining possession of a whole man’s powers and so partaking of his masculinity.” But is it masculinity she craves? Queer theorists and feminist scholars think not.
The phrase penis envy rings uncomfortably in contemporary ears, in part because it is so easy to think of a penis as only one thing. In her article “The Laugh of Medusa,” theorist Hélène Cixous says she craves a penis only out of her desire for wholeness, a desire to experience everything in life. “I don’t want a penis to decorate my body with. But I do desire the other for the other, whole and entire, male or female; because living means wanting everything that is, everything that lives, and wanting it alive.” Judith Butler thinks that it isn’t only men who have phalluses. We all have them, or can have them. We can all be them and we can all crave them.
In her article “Girls and Girls and Girls and Horses,” one of the few pieces of contemporary scholarly writing on the question of why girls like horses, Elspeth Probyn situates a girl’s love of horses not as a craving for a penis, but as a deep longing—for power, for female community, for belonging. “As far as I remember from the pony-club stories and experiences of my youth, it was always girls and girls and horses together, with nary a boy in sight.” Horses allow girls to invent relationships and to create new rules of relatedness, new opportunities for longing—relationships between girl and horse, relationships between girl and girl. They are a way to transcend gender and take power from another realm. Boys, and penises, are beside the point. It is in this transcendence that the real transgression of the horse girls lies, where it is so easy to locate the appeal of the fever dream that for so many of us eventually breaks. At just the moment when a girl is being asked to define herself, to declare herself female (or its opposite), to declare herself straight (or its opposite), to declare herself beautiful (or its opposite), a horse seems to offer her a way to see herself beyond these declarations as powerful and whole.
When a girl rides a horse, she is the one in control and the one being controlled. She possesses the horse, and the horse possesses her. She wants everything. She has everything. Riding is an experience of wholeness, of danger, of seeing a new edge of what life can offer. A little girl draws a horse, rides a horse, as an early experiment in power, yes—but also in limitlessness.
The auction is held on the second, final day of the swim. The ponies spend the night on Chincoteague in a pen near the fairgrounds, within view of the Tilt-A-Whirl and the paratrooper ride, temporarily set up next to a long line of brown porta-potties and a squeaky white Ferris Wheel. At the front gate stood a larger-than-life statue of a pony permanently reared up, exposing a prominent piece of plastic that identified him as male.
By the time I arrived, a half hour early for the 8:30 a.m. start, the seats were all taken at the auction grounds. The infrastructure, a large, grassy field surrounded on three sides by shaded bleachers, looked new, as if it was built solely for this annual occasion.
The pleasure of spectacle that had blanketed the morning before was now tempered by the business at hand. Most people were here to buy. I hadn’t seen many Amish families during the swim, but they were here today, clad in stiff bonnets and straw hats. A large group of women in identical Chincoteague Pony Club T-shirts sat in the front. They would bid as a block, pooling their money to purchase “buyback ponies,” foals that the fire department would take back to the island to maintain the herd. The woman standing next to me had long purple acrylic nails, cowboy boots, and a forearm tattoo that read: Dream. She wore a handgun in her belt, close enough for me to touch.
The auctioneer began to narrate the proceedings. “Dads! There’s no excuse!” he shouted. Little girls want ponies, he seemed to say, and it’s up to the dads to buy them. Never mind that most of the bidders were women.
The first pony up was a palomino so young she could barely walk. As two Saltwater Cowboys led her out, she bucked and tried to run back to her mother in the pen. But the cowboys easily pushed her to the ground and held her there, squirming, as the auctioneer revved up to full speed. “A feisty one,” he said with glee. The palomino sold for $4,200 and a cheer rose from the crowd.
The cowboys brought out the ponies one by one. Many were very young—two or three months. According to the PR officer for the Pony Swim, before their new owners took them home, these young foals would return to their mothers until they were weaned, but the spectacle still felt unsettling. Over and over again, foals on uncertain legs were paraded in front of the crowd. The mares in the paddock whinnied and neighed, but the crowd was unfazed.
The first buyback pony came up for auction. The highest bidder would pay for the small foal to be returned with the mares to Assateague. The price was raised again and again, and when the final bid was made, another cheer went up and I saw a woman in the front row doubled over, sobbing from the pleasure of having bought this pony that she would name but never ride or tame. At the auction that day, sixty-two ponies were sold, including ten buyback ponies. The fire department made a record amount: $209,000.
I left the auction disturbed and hot, and drove to Assateague by way of a well-maintained bridge that joins the two islands. Assateague seemed to be the inverse twin of Chincoteague. Where Chincoteague had a taxidermied pony in a museum, Assateague had a wildlife diorama in an educational visitors center. Where Chincoteague had Saltwater Cowboys watching as children reached over a barrier to pet a wild foal, Assateague had park rangers in brown uniforms reminding visitors never to touch the ponies. Where Chincoteague had created a two-day festival around the sale and breeding of wild horses, Assateague had created an educational DVD about their experiments in sterilizing the ponies. These were two ideals of wildness, and two different ideals of how that wildness should be controlled.
I had come to these islands for the horse girl I once was. I wanted to understand the love of horses that had overtaken me as a ten-year-old and to see what it had offered me. Horses allow girls to be the tamer and the tamed, to play with and desire different degrees of wildness and control. Sometimes you want to be the pony; sometimes you want to be the rider; sometimes you want to be briskly brushed and put to bed. And sometimes you want to be the untouched wild mare, ankle deep in a salty marsh, eating marsh grass until your belly bloats.
I arrived at the farthest edge of Assateague and sat on the beach to look out on the Atlantic. Someone had set up a fishing pole nearby—an enormous, Hemingwayesque oceanic rod buried deep in the sand. Soon the pole began to bend, and a bleach-blond young man ran over in his board shorts to see what he had caught. He reeled and struggled, and a crowd gathered. He had caught a shark. It was a small one, with smooth, cartilaginous gray skin. A long hook stuck out of its mouth. The shark flopped mightily and the man held it up for the small crowd to look at, proud and triumphant. Then he unhooked it, grabbed it by the tail, and released it into the surf.