Assateague’s Wild Horses
Assateague is a quiet National Seashore destination off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. On Assateague, ponies roam free, but once a year herds are rounded up for a run to Chincoteague.
The 37-mile long barrier island of Assateague comes to life in late July when visitors arrive for the annual pony penning. Herds of majestic equines are rounded up by so-called saltwater cowboys, and led across the water to Chincoteague in a spectacle drawing the attention of many vacationing families. The event is the culmination of a carefully orchestrated effort.
The horses are often associated with nearby Chincoteague, but actually live on Assateague. Legend has it that the horses swam safely to shore after the Spanish ship holding them was wrecked in a violent storm. However the more widely believed tale says the horses were moved to Assateague by colonists to avoid fencing laws and livestock taxes. Those horses that escaped their owners’ clutches became wild, but are more accurately called “feral,” as they descended from domesticated animals.
Records are kept by the Chincoteague Wildlife Federation to ensure that each horse’s family, health and home state are known. Two herds, each containing 150 horses, are split between the Virginia and Maryland sides of Assateague, and herds further divide themselves into bands of two to 12 horses. Herd size is kept constant by a birth control program that has both improved the horses’ health, and kept the island wildlife safe.
In 1924, the pony penning kicked off as a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Today, during the annual event, the horses are rounded up and herded across the water for an auction at Chincoteague, another method of controlling herd size. These transplanted “Chincoteague Ponies” are considered their own unique breed.
The barrier island of Assateague is a National Seashore with salt marshes, maritime forests and coastal bays. The island is constantly changing, reshaped by wind and by the dynamic combination of salt and fresh water comprising more than half of the seashore’s 48,000 acres. This unique habitat is suitable to an unusual array of species able to withstand heat, mosquitoes and violent weather, including the famous wild horses.
Visitors may stroll tens of miles of sandy shoreline or unwind at a serene campsite for an unforgettable summer or winter respite.