Maryland: Where the Wild Horses of Assateague Island Run
You've probably heard of the wild ponies of Chincoteague, Virginia, but did you know that there is a similar place in Maryland? Assateague Island is easily accessible from Baltimore, Annapolis, southern Delaware, and northern Virginia, and is only about a three hour drive from Washington, D.C. If you have never experienced the wonder and beauty of wild horses and are in the Maryland area, it is well worth a trip to the island.
Aside from being a great place to see beautiful horses, there are plenty of opportunities to bird-watch, especially during migrations in the spring and fall. There is a beautiful, pristine beach with blue waves and white sand. Instead of the ugly development that plagues most of our nation's beaches, there are white dunes with seagrasses and vast marshes. There are also numerous nature trails around the island that offer many opportunities for spotting wildlife, and a comfortable campground.
An Aerial View
Its Shape Changes with the Winds, Sands, and Tides
Assateague is a barrier island whose form is constantly changing with the movement of the water and sands. In the 1950s, developers built a paved road on the island, which was destroyed by a hurricane. I guess Assateague Island just wanted to remain pristine, because soon after the road was destroyed, it was named a national seashore. It is now one of our national treasures, and an object of pride for native Marylanders like myself.
I Ran Into This Family of Horses on the Side of the Road!
Horses or Ponies?
Scientists continue to argue over whether the horses of Assateague are actually ponies. The truth is that they descended from horses, but because of the harsh environment, have evolved to be very small, and most are now technically the size of ponies.
The legend goes that the ancestors of these horses were aboard a shipwrecked Spanish galleon. They swam to safety on the barrier islands and repopulated there. So, even though these horses are wild, they descended from domesticated stock. The horses are very used to people and will often approach campsites and exhibit very little fear of humans. Last time I was there, I had a lovely day watching birds, deer, and horses from afar, but I was upset that I didn't get to see any horses up close. As I was driving out of the park at sunset, I ran into this family of horses on the side of the road. They ignored me while I walked around them taking pictures!
"Those Horses Look Pregnant...or Fat!"
When you visit Assateague, you will probably find yourself wondering why the horses' bellies are so round. This is not usually because they are pregnant, and certainly not because they are fat! This is because their diet of marsh grasses includes a lot of salt, causing them to bloat.
Horses Are Regularly Seen Mingling With Beach Goers.
Avoid Horse Bites!
The park service cautions people not to get too close to the horses, and not to attempt to pet them, as there have been many cases of them biting people who have tried this. We have to remember that though the horses are not initially afraid of humans or territorial, it is easy for them to perceive a friendly pat as a threat. If you've never seen a horse bite, I hope that you never do! These animals have large teeth and strong jaws, and though they are not normally aggressive, a bite can inflict serious injury at worst, and a whole lot of pain at best.
In the past, the horses have overpopulated the island. They are often removed from the island and placed with private owners, and they tend to adapt quite well to domestication, possibly because of the large amounts of tourists who come to the island each year to observe them and enjoy being close to them.
Otherwise, a federal progam has been in place on the island since 1994. Males are sterilized after breeding once, so that the gene pool remains diverse, but the population is kept at sustainable levels.
A Birdwatching Destination
If you've ever gone bird watching, you know how fun it can be to watch birds interact with each other and see their beautiful plumage through binoculars. If this sounds like fun to you, you will enjoy this aspect of Assateague island. It serves as a wildlife refuge for many gulls, terns, and waterfowl. During a typical trip to the island, you're likely to see such beautiful birds as the snowy egret, the great blue heron, and even the gorgeous osprey.
Snowy Egret Displaying Breeding Plumage
Wild Horses Embody Freedom
I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed many trips to Assateague Island ever since I was little. If you are ever in the vicinity, I highly recommend that you go. It is inexpensive, the scenery is beautiful, and you can enjoy camping on the beach and waking up to find a horse grazing just outside your tent.
Horses are large, strong, and beautiful animals. They have been romanticized about in many stories. There is something so majestic and beautiful about seeing a wild horse running through the waves with its pack. It is the embodiment of freedom.
Enjoy the photos below of horses, birds, and scenery, and start planning your trip to Assateague Island.