Hardy, compact, and spirited - the horses on Assateague Island run freely over a range bounded by ocean and bay. Bands of mares and young led by protective stallions graze on marsh grasses, drink at freshwater ponds, and retreat into island forests for shelter.
With luck, you will see ponies during your visit. Please watch from a distance. Wild ponies kick and bite, even though they may look tame. Feeding them is dangerous and unlawful.
The ponies usually live in small groups or "bands." Bands living on the northern section of the island belong to the Maryland herd. The National Park Service maintains these horses in their wild state with minimal human interference.
The larger Virginia herd - the Chincoteague Ponies - graze under permit on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. A fence at the state boundary keeps the herds separated.
How did the ponies arrive at Assateague? Some may have been shipwrecked here long ago as legend contends, but no documented evidence has yet been found.
Research does show that English planters pastured horses and other kinds of livestock on barrier islands here in the 1600s to avoid the expenses of fencing and taxes. Perhaps some of today's ponies have descended from these pioneers.
Every year on the last Wendensday and Thursday in July, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (owner and manager of the Virginia herd) sponsors its festive roundup. Horseback riders gather the ponies and drive them across the channel to the Chincoteague carnival ground where some are sold at auction. The rest are returned to the island.