The Wild Horses of Assateague

by Dana Kester-McCabe

One of our area's most popular natural attractions are probably the Wild Horses of Assateague. Made famous by Marguerite Henry's famous series of books Misty of Chincoteague, these beautiful horses roam freely on the island, playing in the surf and posing for pictures.

Many call them ponies but experts remind us that technically they are a small breed of horse. There are two separate herds living on Assateague Island, separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia state line. Within both herds there are chestnuts, palominos, and pintos.

There are a number of theories about where these wild horses might have originally come from. One theory is that they were refugees from a Spanish galleon which wrecked on the coast during a storm. Another is that they were livestock taken to the island to be hidden from tax assessors. But the most widely accepted theory is that they were simply farm animals taken there to graze and then were either abandoned by the owners or evaded being recaptured.

Today there is a "pony patrol" of volunteers who shoo the horses out of the road and away from cars. Their mission is to educate visitors about safe ways to interact with the ponies since they are known to bite and kick. The rule is: Keep ten feet away for the safety and well being of horse and visitor alike.

Every July in nearby Chincoteague Virginia, horse lovers have the opportunity to see them up close in a thrilling "pony penning". Local "saltwater cowboys" round up and move the Virginia herd across the coastal bay to a country fair where some of the colts are then sold at auction to keep the herd a reasonable size and benefit the local fire department.

Find out more at websites for Assateague Island National Seashore Park and the Chincoteague Pony Centre: