Assateague Island National Seashore ̶ Where the Wild Horses Are

Assateague Island National Seashore on Maryland’s eastern shore has many pleasures worth the visit, but none more than the wild horses or ponies that make their home here.

Two palomino ponies standing in the tall grass at Assateague Island National Seashore.
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

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Why Are Wild Horses on Assateague Island?

There are two theories about why wild horses live on Assateague Island. The fun, romantic version tells of a Spanish galleon getting caught in a storm and sinking off the coast of Maryland about 400 years ago. The horses were in the cargo hold, somehow broke free and swam to the barrier island and lived there ever since. That sounds reasonable.

The other story tells of landowners on the mainland trying to avoid the tax collector. Four hundred years or so ago, people were taxed on their horses and other livestock, much like many states impose a property tax on automobiles today. So when the tax collector was coming around, several people would swim their horses over to the island to hide them in order to avoid paying taxes. Over the years, the owners didn’t always bring the horses back, they reproduced and now you have wild horses on Assateague Island.

Avoiding Taxes. That’s the more likely story, IMHO.

Are they Wild Ponies or Wild Horses?

Some people call them horses, some people call them ponies. The primary difference between a horse and a pony is the size, and the horses on Assateague Island tend to be smaller. Their diet is the grass and scrub that grows on the island, which is all covered in a nice salt spray from the ocean. Consuming so much salt has stunted their growth over the years. People call them both and that’s OK.

The park service pretty much leaves them alone. NPS manages the herd size by allowing each mare to have just one foal. Veterinarians also monitor for diseases. Through hurricanes and brutal winter weather, the horses are out on the island. But they’ve lived like this for centuries, so they’ll be OK.

As you can see, the horses just make themselves at home anywhere and everywhere. They mosey through campgrounds and near automobiles. A friend of mine said “Wow, they must not be that wild if they get that close to people.”

Yes, it’s tempting to think that these horses on Assateague Island are not wild, but they are. Just like bison and bear wander around in other parks, often in campgrounds and on roadways, so do these wild horses. Each year, people are injured for getting too close to the horses, attempting to pet them or take selfies. The horses kick and bite and charge. And wow, don’t even think about getting between a mom and her foal. Stay about 18 feet away, or the length of a school bus, is good advice.

Cyclists ride past a wild horse at Assateague Island National Park
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Assateague Island National Seashore and State Park and Chincoteaugue

Just because they like to confuse some of us, there is an Assateague Island National Seashore in both Maryland and Virginia. The Virginia unit is called Chincoteague. There’s also an Assateague Island State Park. And they are right beside each other. And some of the rules are different. For example: you can have campfires on the beach in Maryland, but you can’t in Virginia. You camp on the beach in the state park, but not in the national park.

But the good news is two-fold:

1) the beach is equally beautiful in both parks

2) the wild ponies don’t know the difference and wander everywhere.

Sunbathers at the beach on Assateague Island national Seashore.
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

And you know, the National Park Service does this elsewhere, trying to confuse us. Indiana Dunes National Park and Indiana Dunes State Park are right beside each other.

What to Do at Assateague Island National Seashore

Above all, Assateague Island is an island on the Atlantic Ocean with beautiful white sand for enjoying the sun and surf. It’s common to see dolphins, gray seals and humpback whales playing nearby.

But here’s the deal: the ocean floor drops off quickly just a few feet out, so you can get in over your head very easily. And be alert to riptide. It occasionally becomes a problem here. Lifeguards are on duty most summer days, but it varies from park units.

And here’s another tip for playing in the sand: Note that you share this beach with wild horses. There are horse droppings everywhere. Volunteers and employees make every effort to clean up after the horses, but sometimes they miss a few piles and those get buried in the sand. You might want to keep your shoes on most of the time lest your bare feet find a fresh pile covered by sand.

Bicycling is very popular and so easy on Assateague. The island is basically flat and the surfaces are almost all paved. There are two vendors who rent bicycles, or bring your own. Helmets are required.

Fishing and kayaking are permitted, as is crabbing. Vendors are available to help you out. You can also go horseback riding. No, not the wild horses, but horses on the beach nonetheless.

How about this? Take your private vehicle out for a ride on the sand? Well, it’s not quite that easy. There are some serious requirements you can read about online, but still, how much fun! ATVS and UTVs are not permitted. Take your own shovel in case you get stuck.

Camping on Assateague Island National Seashore and State Park

There are multiple camping options for everything from backcountry to on the beach to full-service rigs. I thought this was pretty funny: The state park created picnic tables for campers to store food underneath. They are specially designed so that horses can’t nuzzle in and grab a bag of goodies.

Other Parks to See Wild Horses

Of course, there are other places to find wild horses in the U.S. and beyond. Here are a few places to learn more.