Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Species Spotlight: The Wild Ponies of Assateague and Chincoteague

July 6, 2011, 2:57 pm

Straddling the state line of Maryland and Virginia, Assateague Island is less than 18,000 acres and some of the most stunning seashore in the east coast. The barrier island is divided into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore. Stretching 37 miles, the island is home to the famed wild ponies.

Just how these creatures ended up on the island is still a mystery. Some speculate that the horses were on a boat that shipwrecked off the coast of Virginia long ago. A more popular theory is that they are descendants of horses brought to barrier islands by those trying to avoid livestock taxation and fencing laws in the 17th century. There are currently over 300 wild horses on the island.

At first glance, visitors can see that these horses are not as tall or slender as modern domesticated horses. Living on a barrier island, the horses have a diet extremely high in salt. They survive primarily on saltmarsh cordgrass, saltmeadow hay and beach grass, none of which is nutritious enough to enable them grow to a larger size. The salt diet causes the horses to drink twice as much water as domesticated horses, giving them the appearance of a bloated belly.

These hearty ponies have lived on the island for over 300 years, which has been not easy task. With such limited space and sparse grazing options, only the strong survive. Veterinary care is not given to horses on the island. While living on the island, the horses endure sweltering heat, relentless mosquitoes and a terrible diet.

Each year, approximately 150-175 members of the herd are the focus of the Pony Swim. The animals are moved off the island in an effort to help reduce the population. Approximately 40,000 spectators flock to the shoreline to watch the swim. Although it only lasts 3 minutes, the pony auction and carnival atmosphere keeps the area busy all day.

The Pony Swim , an 85-year-old tradition, takes place every year on the last Wednesday in July. Swimming the horses across the Assateague Channel during slack tide ensures none of the younger animals are in danger of drowning.

For those who don’t like big crowds and spectacles, visitors can also drive to the island and observe the horses on the beach. It is important to remember that these are wild horses and to keep your distance. Do not feed or try to pet the horses. 

Photo Source: NPS