Friday, June 21, 2013

Top 10 Horsing Around Assateague Island

To be perfectly honest this was my second time to Assateague.  The first time was 35 years or so ago, same scenario though, I was in Ocean City, Maryland and it is right next door. We drove the entire car loop and I never saw one pony. So, I decided to hoof it this time.

I highly recommend the introduction video at the visitor's center basically because it is educational and tells you a lot about the territory you are invited into.  You can ask questions of the Park Rangers and get maps of the trails. Check the website for Ranger talks. Here is more of the lowdown. It is a barrier island so you have to take a bridge or a boat to get there.

Verrazano Bridge

The very first thing you are taught is, these are wild animals.  They are not trained to entertain you.  They live here.  You are the intruders. Do not feed the animals, they are not used to people food and can get sick and they could mistake your fingers for a treat. Also, if they get a taste of food and come to expect it, they could be hit by a car when they come looking for you, I mean food. The recommendation is to keep a bus length away from the horses and in certain circumstances further distance is recommended. Not every one gets this memo so make sure you educate yourself before going on the prowl. As crazy as I am with a camera, I did not get that close.

There are two theories on how the horses got to this island. One is a ship wreck and they swam to shore to survive over 300 years ago but there has never been any documented proof of this or a shipwreck found.

The other theory involves tax evasion.  The early settlers were required to pay taxes on all livestock and to fence them in. Horsefeathers! The island provided a natural corral and free food, grass. This is the more popular belief. I have read however, that the Chincoteague folks stick with the sunken ship theory.


It does start out as a mystery, silly humans, we expect the horses to just trot on up and say, here I am.  The entire population including both the Assateague and the Chincoteague can range anywhere from 300 total to maybe 400 after the birth of the new ponies.  These horses roam over 48,000 acres and the island is 37 miles long.  That is enough room to spread out and play a great game of hide and seek. I did spot my first one just after leaving the visitors center to the right grazing in an open field.


The horses have learned to adapt to their habitat.  They eat the various grasses that grow on the sandy soil. No need to mow this grass. It's a nature taking care of nature.

Where can you find the horses? During the winter months the horse move more inward and live among the brush and are more isolated from the harsh winter elements.  In the summer, they tend to hang at the beach, take a swim to beat the heat and to shake off the bugs like mosquitoes and flies that plague us all. I did not see any horses on the beach, the water was probably still too cold but I did find traces (hoofprints) that they were there.

Between 1933 and 1962 there was a push to develop this land and turn it into another seashore vacation spot.  Baltimore Boulevard was the only road through and 130 side street were carved out, very minimal traces of those remain.  You can still find remnants of the roadway macadam that was destroyed by the 1962 hurricane season that finally started the ball rolling and by 1965 legislation was passed to make this area an undeveloped National Seashore. We can thank the 1962 northeaster for once paradise was not paved, nature had other plans for this area and finally won one. We can still enjoy all the benefits the area offers.

Baltimore Boulevard now used by the gulls to crack clam shells.
There are two sets of horses on the island separated by a fence on the Maryland (Assateague) and Virginia (Chincoteague) state border.

The Assateague horses receive no special treatment with the exception of  gravely ill or seriously injured horses. Action may be taken to ease their suffering.  However to maintain a reasonable population for the island, a contraceptive vaccine delivered by dart to selected mares in the spring prevents overpopulation. Each mare is allowed to have at least one offspring and typically 10 foals are born a year. During the video, they show how the horses tend to shy away when they see a ranger with a dart gun.

The Chincoteague horses are owned and maintained by the Chincoteague Fire department they do receive veterinary care. Annually on the last Wednesday in July the "Pony Swim" will take place between Assateague to Chincoteague Island and the strongest foals will be sold and proceeds go to maintaining the herd. Approximately 90 foals are born here a year and the sale helps to control the population.  Both areas strive to keep a total of 125 horses year round. You can read more about these horses at Chincoteage Chamber of Commerce website. The also have an Oyster Festival in October.

Some of the activities you can do during your visit include camping, hiking, biking, fishing, birdwatching, shell collecting, swimming, there are guards on duty in season and of course just enjoy an area where man hasn't meddle too much and for the most part remains totally natural.

Are they horses over there fishing? My goggles are foggy.

My advice on any adventure have minimal expectations but always seek and you shall find, just proceed with caution and sense. These horses are a National Treasure. t is also a great place for birding, I saw an eagle, an osprey, a red-winged black bird, ibis, cormorant,ducks, willet, egret, heron and piping plovers.

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