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Maryland: Where the Wild Horses of Assateague Island Run

Stephanie loves to travel and eat expensive food. She also loves to cook.

A young horse on Assateague

A young horse on Assateague

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.

Aerial view of Assateague Island

Aerial view of Assateague Island

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.

A group of wild horses, Assateague Island

A group of wild horses, Assateague Island

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. The 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!

The wild horses on Assateague Island get bloated bellies because of the salt in the grass.

The wild horses on Assateague Island get bloated bellies because of the salt in the grass.

"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.

Ponies on Assateague Island mingle with beach goers and bathers!

Ponies on Assateague Island mingle with beach goers and bathers!

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.

Wild Horse, Assateague Island

Wild Horse, Assateague Island

Population Control

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 program 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.

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Wild horse, Assateague Island

Wild horse, Assateague Island

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.

A snowy egret, displaying breeding plumage.

A 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 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.

A band of horses, Assateague Island

A band of horses, Assateague Island

Osprey with fish

Osprey with fish

American Oyster Catcher

American Oyster Catcher

A wild horse out for a walk along the road, Assateague Island

A wild horse out for a walk along the road, Assateague Island

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Wild horse, Assateague Island

Wild horse, Assateague Island

The beautiful scenery of Assateague Island is similar to Chincoteague.

The beautiful scenery of Assateague Island is similar to Chincoteague.

Wild Horses grazing on Assateague Island

Wild Horses grazing on Assateague Island

Great Blue Heron, flying with material for nesting in its beak

Great Blue Heron, flying with material for nesting in its beak

A young wild horse on Assateague Island

A young wild horse on Assateague Island

Indigo Bunting, Assteague Island

Indigo Bunting, Assteague Island

Beautiful marsh scenery of Assateague Island

Beautiful marsh scenery of Assateague Island

Wild and Free!

A wild horse running along the beach of Assateague Island

A wild horse running along the beach of Assateague Island

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