Wild for Horses on Assateague Island
There are many reasons people journey from all around to reach Assateague Island. With its wind-swept sandy islands, salty marshes and lush maritime forests, Assateague Island is the perfect escape for anyone wanting to leave the crowds and find their own piece of paradise. Some venture here to spend a day kayaking or leisurely strolling the unspoiled beaches. Other popular activities include hiking, shell collecting, swimming, surfing, surf fishing, shell fishing and bird watching. Quite a few come for a unique camping experience. However, there’s one attraction in particular that draws so many people to Assateague Island: the wild horses.
Each summer, visitors come from near and far with the hope of catching a glimpse of the island’s famous and beloved horses as they roam free in their natural habitat. It’s easy to get lost in time gazing at these intriguing creatures, and people often have questions about the horses, such as how they got here or what their life is like.
Legend of the Assateague Wild Horses
Legend has it that a Spanish galleon wrecked off the shores of the island, and the horses swam to safety. While this is an exciting tale, there are no records to confirm this story. It has, however, been proven that during the 17th century, farmers were required to pay taxes on their livestock. To avoid this tax, they set allowed the animals to roam free on the island to graze tax free.
About the Assateague Wild Horses
Two herds of horses call the island home—the Chincoteague “ponies” on the Virginia side and the Assateague horses on the Maryland side. A fence at the Virginia/Maryland State line separates them. The National Park Service manages the Maryland herd of 90 horses, and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns the Virginia herd of approximately 150 horses. Both herds have been living on the 37-mile-long barrier island for hundreds of years.
Since their arrival, the wild horses have adapted to the seashore ecosystem. During the cold winter months, the horses develop thick fur coats to keep them warm. If there’s a storm, the horses seek shelter in wooded areas.
Spotting the Assateague Wild Horses
The warm weather months are the perfect time to spot these majestic horses. They spend their days roaming the island, grazing on natural plants and drinking from fresh water ponds. The horses will often wander onto the campgrounds, parking areas and roads. In Maryland, horses can be seen from your car as you’re driving, or you may want to rent a kayak for a closer view.
While these quiet creatures look tame, they are still wild animals and should never be pet or fed. For your own protection and the protection of the horses, keep a safe distance. The wild horses are unpredictable wild animals, and National Park Service recommends keeping a “bus length” away which is at least 40 feet.
On your way to your island escape, visit the Assateague Island Visitor Center on the southern side of Route 611 before the Verrazano Bridge park entrance. Find information about the park, programs and recreational activities, plus exhibits on beachcombing, nature films, a marine aquarium and a touch tank.
For more information about Assateague Island, its horses and wildlife plus rules on camping within the parks, visit NPS.gov/asis or call 410-641-1441.
Assateague Island: Enjoy a Day of Wild Beauty
By Rebekah Conley
The wild horses were what drew me to the island on my birthday. It was April and the weather was warm and inviting. My parents and I wandered the nature trails, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the natural beauty, but hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed ponies. We almost gave up hope when we came to a lookout point. There they were. Though I had to drive several hours to get to Assateague, that glimpse of horses running free on the marsh made the trip worth it. Their wild beauty awakened something in my that longed for that same freedom.
About nine miles from Ocean City, is the beautiful island of Assateague. With its wind-swept sandy islands, salty marshes and lush maritime forests, Assateague Island is the perfect escape for anyone wanting to leave the crowds and find themselves their own piece of paradise. And with its close proximity to Ocean City, it is not only conveniently located, but is also a great way to catch some sun and enjoy the salty breeze for a day. However, there’s one attraction in particular that draws so many people to Assateague: the wild horses freely roaming the island. These horses have survived on the island for decades through every season, and continue to flourish as they adapt to their unique habitat.