Stretching along 37 miles off the eastern coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, Assateague Island is home to white, sandy beaches, large populations of birds and diverse native species, and, most famously, a sizable herd of protected wild horses.
The northern two-thirds of Assateague Island is in Maryland, and is home to the Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park, while the southern third of the island is located in Virginia, and contains the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Assateague’s “wild” horses are actually feral horses. Usually, they are the descendants of domestic animals that have returned to an earlier wild state.
The horse family on the island is a unique one — for years, they have survived the tough climates and natural pests on the remote barrier island.
The horses live in different areas divided between the Virginia-Maryland borders, and live two to 12 horses to a group.
The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire company owns and manages the Virginia herd, which grazes mainly on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Visitors to the island are known to come in contact with the horses — though humans are warned against feeding and petting them, because the horses can easily get sick from eating processed human food.
Despite these precautions, there are very few places in the country where people can see herds of wild horses in their natural habitat.
These Assateague horses in particular have roamed the beaches, pine forests, and salt marshes on the island since the 1600s!
Today, there are more than 300 wild ponies on the island.
Throughout the centuries, they have become completely self-sufficient, and depend on marsh and sand dune grasses, bayberry twigs, rosehips, and persimmons for food, according to the Assateague Island National Seashore.
The Virginia and Maryland horses are kept apart by fencing at the border, but the National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service regularly conduct management studies to make sure that their environment is safe and suitable.
Every July, management will round up 150 horses, and guide them to swim across the Assateague Channel, onto Chincoteague Island.
There, they’ll take part in an auction. Once sold, most of them adapt very quickly to domestication.
This is done to reduce the impact the horses pose to their environment, as their population rises, and to help provide sustainable resources for future generations of horses, and for other wild animals.
These horses are so beloved, they’ve become cherished icons to locals. They even appear in children’s artwork!
We hope that visitors to the island continue to respect their natural habitat, so that they may coexist in harmony.