Maryland: Where the Wild Horses of Assateague Island Run

Updated on February 1, 2018
A young horse on Assateague
A young horse on Assateague | Source

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

Aerial view of Assateague Island
Aerial view of Assateague Island | Source

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!

Wild Horses of Assateague Island
Wild Horses of Assateague Island | Source
A group of wild horses, Assateague Island
A group of wild horses, Assateague Island | Source

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!

Bloated Bellies

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. | Source

"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.

Ponies on Assateague Island mingle with beach goers and bathers!
Ponies on Assateague Island mingle with beach goers and bathers! | Source

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 | Source

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 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.

Wild horse, Assateague Island
Wild horse, Assateague Island | Source

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

A snowy egret, displaying breeding plumage
A snowy egret, displaying breeding plumage | Source

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.

A band of horses, Assateague Island
A band of horses, Assateague Island | Source
Osprey with fish
Osprey with fish | Source
American Oyster Catcher
American Oyster Catcher | Source
A wild horse out for a walk along the road, Assateague Island
A wild horse out for a walk along the road, Assateague Island | Source
Piping Plover
Piping Plover | Source
Wild horse, Assateague Island
Wild horse, Assateague Island | Source
The beautiful scenery of Assateague Island is similar to Chincoteague.
The beautiful scenery of Assateague Island is similar to Chincoteague. | Source
Wild Horses grazing on Assateague Island
Wild Horses grazing on Assateague Island | Source
Great Blue Heron, flying with material for nesting in its beak
Great Blue Heron, flying with material for nesting in its beak | Source
A young wild horse on Assateague Island
A young wild horse on Assateague Island | Source
Indigo Bunting, Assteague Island
Indigo Bunting, Assteague Island | Source
Beautiful marsh scenery of Assateague Island
Beautiful marsh scenery of Assateague Island | Source

Wild and Free!

A wild horse running along the beach of Assateague Island
A wild horse running along the beach of Assateague Island | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Ferrell 

        2 months ago

        The males are not given contraceptive.

        The mares are selected based on age to get a PZP dart.

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        5 years ago from Miami, US

        It's true, they don't promote the herd enough! A lot fo people don't even realize that Assateague exists, including some Marylanders. It is a great way for people from PA and NJ to see wild horses on a lovely beach, and the price is quite low. Thanks for your input.

      • profile image

        Marco 

        5 years ago

        Maryland does a horrible job of self promoting the state. Ironically, the Virginia herd is privately owned and auctioned off from time to time to maintain overpopulation, whereas the Maryland herd is public, i.e. run by the park service--thus more "wild." And they are never auctioned off. Overpopulation is prevented by sterilizing the males after they've had one offspring. I'm always surprised more people don't know about the Maryland herd, especially since it's a mere hour from Ocean City, a huge summer resort. I guess when the entire state is basically a federal outpost that gets all of its revenue from taxes and government largess, you don't need tourist dollars.

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        5 years ago from Miami, US

        @aparkhurst- I'm glad you think so, I always enjoy it :) Thanks for the comment!

      • aparkhurst7 profile image

        aparkhurst7 

        5 years ago from Wilkes Barre, PA West Hartford, CT

        Assateague is beautiful! It's nice to know they are still places that are so natural.

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        6 years ago from Miami, US

        @prasetio30- I'm glad you like my hub :) Have you been to the U.S.? Most foreign tourists who come visit New York and other big cities, but it could be a fun day trip from Washington D.C.. It is like an animal kingdom, and it always feels so special so see them because they are wild. It is like a gift from nature. Thanks for the comment and the vote.

      • prasetio30 profile image

        prasetio30 

        6 years ago from malang-indonesia

        I could find many beautiful horses here. This was like an animal kingdom. I really enjoy all stunning pictures above. Very well presented. You have done a great job here. Rated up!

        Prasetio

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        6 years ago from Miami, US

        @happyboomernurse- Wow! That is quite a lot of hub love! Thank you! Assateague Island has so much to offer, I am very surprised that so many hubbers have been there. Keep spreading the word :)

      • Happyboomernurse profile image

        Gail Sobotkin 

        6 years ago from South Carolina

        I've been to Assateague Island and you did a great job of capturing its many wonders in this hub. Loved the photos you took of the wild horse family. The color of their coats was gorgeous.

        I didn't know the reason why their bellies were bloated and it was interesting to learn the other facts you wrote about the island and the wildlife that inhabits it.

        Voted up, useful, awesome, beautiful and interesting!

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        6 years ago from Miami, US

        @faceless39- That is a really sweet comment! Thank you so much for the hub love :)

        I'm glad you enjoyed this hub...it is such a great place, and its cool that you got to get so up close and personal with one of the ponies. I bet having a horse stick his head into your car was pretty amazing as a kid!

      • Faceless39 profile image

        Kate P 

        6 years ago from The North Woods, USA

        Rated up, awesome, and beautiful! I went there as a kid and I remember being so impressed that these ponies were on the beach eating grass! One of them poked its head into my car window eeeek! Fantastic hub and images--I'd totally forgotten about Assateague Island. Thanks! :)

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        6 years ago from Miami, US

        Oh yea, I'm sure they'd love to visit, and it would be great if he has kids. It is a beautiful place to see, I hope you make it out there someday. Thanks for visiting!

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        6 years ago from Sunny Florida

        I would love to visit there. I didn't know about this island but am going to tell my son and his family as they are new to living in Maryland. Very informative hub.

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        6 years ago from Miami, US

        Yes, you should, it is really a special place. However, I know there are several places in the US to find wild horses...like the park in Virginia that is right next to the Maryland park, and an island in Georgia. I've also heard there are a lot of wild horses in the midwestern plains.

      • homesteadbound profile image

        Cindy Murdoch 

        6 years ago from Texas

        This was absolutely beautiful. The horses were beautiful. If I ever make it up there, I will have to go see all of this wonderful nature you spoke of.

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        6 years ago from Miami, US

        That sounds so special! Thanks for the beautiful comment.

      • Jeannieinabottle profile image

        Jeannie InABottle 

        6 years ago from Baltimore, MD

        I love Assateague Island. The horses used to avoid me whenever I visited, but this past July, I was very lucky. There was a group of horses walking along the beach. It felt so surreal to lay on the beach while horses walked around everyone on their beach towels. Voted up and beautiful!

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