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By Phil Hall | April 2, 2002

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a film about ponies that raise money for a fire company. No, it’s not a Tex Avery cartoon…it’s a thoroughly wonderful documentary short called “Saltwater Cowboys” from Virginia filmmaker Rich West which focuses on the world-famous pony swim on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia. While many people are familiar with the equines of that Chincoteague, “Saltwater Cowboys” provides a much-need clap of praise for the true wonders of that island: the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, who are responsible for the annual pony swim and so much more.
Founded in 1924, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s entire operating budget is raised with the annual two-week Fireman’s Carnival, which culminates in the celebrated round-up of wild ponies on neighboring Assateague Island and the pony swim across the channel separating the islands. The ponies arrive on shore at Chincoteague (none have ever drowned in the seven decades of the event) for a parade to the auction grounds at the carnival site. The pony swim attracts international media attention each year and the carnival is one of the more popular July attractions along the Virginia coast…but don’t mistake “Saltwater Cowboys” for a travelogue. The real story is, literally, behind the scenes.
“Saltwater Cowboys” goes behind the scenes to detail the extensive and intense work involved in making the carnival a success. The volunteer firefighters take on a wide range of responsibilities from setting up and testing the carnival rides to maintaining care for the ponies throughout the entire event to producing and hosting the dramatic auction. (If you think making a movie is hard word, try setting up a ferris wheel and making sure it won’t fall apart in mid-rotation!) While outside volunteers come in to assist with the carnival events, it is a remarkable tribute to the strength and willpower of the fire company members to go to such great lengths to make the event a success…not to mention their unheralded supervision and maintenance of the pony herd during the rest of the year, when the carnival grounds are empty.
It is a rare documentary which leaves the viewer appreciative of gaining hitherto unknown knowledge and “Saltwater Cowboys” does a grand job in providing a look into the world of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Most people know of Chincoteague only through Marguerite Henry’s classic children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague,” which followed the adventures of a pony on the island. While the ponies are, admittedly, quite beautiful, the real attraction on Chincoteague deserves to be the men and women associated with the fire company. This is a 24/7 service which answers more than 700 calls for help each year. No one in the department is a full-time employee; everyone holds at least one full-time job yet they are able to devote countless hours to make sure the people of the island can receive firefighting and paramedic services in the event of emergency. Factor in the production and maintenance of the carnival and the year-round care for the ponies and the volunteer firefighters now carry three or four jobs…how they find time to sleep is a mystery.
Just stop and think about it: the budget for the purchase of firetrucks, ambulances, safety equipment and related maintenance expenses comes solely from a summer carnival. “Saltwater Cowboys” doesn’t openly state it, but the volunteer firefighters are financial wizards. It is a shame these individuals can’t switch places with the clowns running the Federal Reserve Bank…America would never have to worry about going into another recession. (Of course, if the Fed leaders ran a fire company the way they run the monetary policy, the entire East Coast would probably burn to ashes!)
“Saltwater Cowboys” is one of the most delightful documentary shorts to come around in a long time. Kudos to Rich West and his production team for polishing this small gem of a film.

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