DELMARVA ALMANAC

Assateague’s Wild Horses

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp tells all us all about the world famous Assateague horses.

2015 will mark the 90th anniversary of one of Delmarva's most famous traditions, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company Pony Swim and Penning. That fame has only grown over the years, as will be evidenced on Wednesday, July 29, when tens of thousands of spectators from around the world, some based on shore and others by boat, will gather along the Assateague Channel at the southeast end of Chincoteague Island. They'll ride out the humidity and morning sun for the magic moment known as slack tide, that 30-minute spell between tides when there is no current, for the Saltwater Cowboys to swim the ponies from wild Assateague Island across the channel to the Town of Chincoteague. The swim takes less than ten minutes, and the ponies are given a 45-minute rest before the cowboys parade them down Chincoteague's Main Street to the carnival grounds where the foals will be auctioned the following morning.

The auction and associated carnival are managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Although the ponies' wild habitat in Virginia is now managed by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the Fire Company has owned the herd prior to the establishment of the refuge in 1943. The Firemen are allowed to graze ponies on the refuge through a Special Use Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Managing the pony population is critical to maintaining the delicate coastal ecosystems found on Assateague, a 37-mile long barrier island that straddles two states and hosts beaches, dunes, maritime forests, and salt marshes. A fence at the state line separates the Virginia ponies from the Maryland herd, where they are known as "wild horses."

The horses require population control because they are not native to Assateague, and can inflict serious damage to the sensitive wild animals and plants found here. Wild horses graze on native Assateague plants, such as the endangered seabeach amaranth and more common grasses found in the saltmarsh. When the horses crop the marsh grass to the height of a manicured suburban lawn, secretive birds, such as rails and saltmarsh sparrows, have nowhere to hide and nest. Heavy horses also compact the ground beneath their hooves, making the marsh unsuitable for burrowing fiddler crabs, and dangerous for the eggs of beach-nesting birds, such as the endangered piping plover.

You may be asking yourself: if the horses aren't native, how did they get to Assateague? The legend portrayed in Marguerite Henry's famous book is that horses swam to shore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon many years ago. Although Spanish vessels with horses listed in their inventory have been lost off the Assateague coast, the stories of horses surviving these wrecks have little basis in fact.

Colonial records do provide details of mainland settlers using Assateague and Delmarva's other barrier islands to graze livestock, including horses, cows, sheep, and pigs. The islands were likely used by resourceful colonists to avoid early fencing laws designed to keep free-roaming livestock from causing crop damage, and to evade taxes paid on their animals. Livestock was naturally corralled on the barrier islands by ocean and bay, and animals could graze on the saltmarsh grasses and find fresh water. When needed, the animals could be rounded up, penned, and sold, similar to the Pony Penning held on Chincoteague this July 29. The theory of the modern Assateague wild horse is that they are the feral descendants of domestic horses owned by coastal settlers more than 300 years ago.

Life for a wild horse on Assateague isn't easy. Over their history, the horses have adapted to the island's harsh extremes. They have adjusted to a primary diet of nutrient-poor saltmarsh and beach grasses by shrinking in size over time. Wild horses are always searching for scarce fresh water to counteract the salt they take in when feeding. The high salt diet combined with large amounts of water gives their bellies a bloated appearance.

The herd managed by Assateague Island National Seashore on the Maryland end of the island are free ranging, and they roam from the Maryland/Virginia state line to the inlet that separates Assateague from Ocean City.

In early spring, the horses live along the bayside to feed on the lush new growth of marsh grasses. In late spring, the mares give birth to foals and live in family groups called "bands". Each band is usually made up of one stallion, 2 to 10 mares, and their young. There are also all-bachelor bands, consisting of young stallions that have not yet acquired any mares.

During the hot, buggy summer, the wild horses spend more time on the beach, taking advantage of the cool ocean breeze to drive away pesky insects. They retreat back to the marshes in the fall when the weather cools and the insects diminish.

Winter is tough on the hardy horses. They grow thick, fuzzy coats that protect them from bitter winter winds and snow. They spend much of their time browsing for food in protective thickets near the maritime forest.

While the Virginia herd does receive veterinary care, the Maryland herd does not. Action is taken only to end the suffering of a seriously ill or injured horse. Just like Assateague's other wild animals, horses that grow sick or weak will not survive. This helps maintain a genetically healthy population of wild horses. Despite the absence of veterinary care, the annual mortality for Assateague's wild horses is usually below 5%, which is low for any population of wild animals.

Since 1994, biologists at Assateague Island National Seashore have used a contraceptive delivered by dart gun to successfully manage a population of 80 to 100 genetically healthy horses. Each mare is allowed to give birth to one foal, so that all mares have a chance to pass on their individual genetic traits.

While tens of thousands visit Chincoteague for July's Pony Swim and Penning, hundreds of thousands more trek to the parks at Assateague all year round in search of the wild horses. Most of the time, you'll find the adult horses standing and eating quietly. You may find young horses playing by galloping and chasing each other. On occasion, you may come upon a conflict between stallions. These conflicts usually start with lots of bluffing, but things can escalate quickly to ferocious kicking and biting. Many stallions sport permanent scars from previous battles.

Most visitors to the Assateague parks respect the rules to not feed or pet the horses, but each summer, a few visitors learn this lesson the hard way. Visitors get kicked, bitten and stomped on every year when trying to feed and pet these wild animals, or when trying to take a selfie with a pony. To some, this human behavior seems innocent, but horses that learn to beg for food can be killed by cars driving on Assateague's dark roads at night.

To aid in the education of visitors who choose to ignore the park rules, Assateague Island National Seashore enlists the help of volunteers known as the Pony Patrol. You'll find these helpful public servants riding around the busy island in the summer months, on the lookout to interrupt harmful interactions between visitors and wild horses.

If you want to help Assateague's wild horses and are unable to join the Pony Patrol or purchase a foal at the Chincoteague Pony Penning auction, you can still adopt one through the Foster Horse program managed by the Assateague Island Alliance. Funds raised through the Foster Horse program help the park manage and protect these beloved island treasures.

The Assateague wild horse has survived more than 300 years of the island's scorching summers and bitter winters. Despite the harsh extremes of this windswept barrier island, the rugged horses remain as a reminder of our colonial past. Enjoy their wild beauty from a distance so that these extraordinary animals will continue to thrive on Assateague Island and enchant future generations for years to come.

Visit this story to learn how Misty made the wild horses of Chincoteague famous.

References:


Chincoteague Pony Swim Guide
http://www.chincoteague.com/pony_swim_guide.html

Assateague Island National Seashore
http://www.nps.gov/asis/index.htm

The Assateague Alliance
http://www.assateagueislandalliance.org

The National Chincoteague Pony Association
http://www.pony-chincoteague.com/