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The Remote Coastal Split Where Wild Horses Roam

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Wild horses inhabit the protected beaches, pine forests, and salt marshes of Assateague Island, a 37-mile coastal split between Maryland and Virginia.

Photo by Stephen Bonk/Shutterstock

Wild horses inhabit the protected beaches, pine forests, and salt marshes of Assateague Island, a 37-mile coastal split between Maryland and Virginia.

On a protected barrier island off the Atlantic coast of Maryland and Virginia, more than 300 untamed horses wander freely.

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Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

For centuries, mysterious herds of wild horses have gallivanted on the protected beaches and salt marshes of Assateague Island, a 37-mile coastal split between Maryland and Virginia. As local folklore goes, the horses are survivors of a 17th-century shipwreck off the Virginia coast. However, while their exact origins are still unknown, it’s more commonly thought that the feral horses are descendants of herds brought to the island in the late 17th century by mainland owners who were trying to avoid livestock taxation and fencing laws. (The term “feral” refers to formerly domesticated animals that have reverted to a “wild” state.) 

Today, more than 300 wild horses inhabit the rugged barrier island, separated into two main herds on either side of the Maryland/Virginia state line, which is delineated by fencing. (Visitors can access the rugged Assateague Island National Seashore from two entrances: one on the north end, eight miles from Ocean City, Maryland, and one on the south end, two miles from Chincoteague, Virginia.)

The Maryland section (which covers the northern two-thirds of the island) is home to the herd known as the Assateague horses. This portion includes most of Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park, and it is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, respectively. The Assateague horses typically divide themselves into groups of 2 to 12, and each band occupies a distinct “home range,” according to the NPS, which handles the Maryland herd.

The Assateague horses inhabit the Maryland portion of the barrier island, with the Chincoteague ponies on the Virginia side of the state line.

On the Virginia side of the state line, the resident wild horses are known as the “Chincoteague” ponies. This herd consists of more than 150 horses owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. For most of the year, the horses are free to graze the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge through a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But every July, Chincoteague’s “salt-water cowboys” round up the horses and put a number up of them up for auction in order to control the population. This local event called “Pony Penning Day” was made famous by author Marguerite Henry’s children’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague (Rand McNally, 1947).

About 2.5 hours south of the windswept barrier island, a small number of wild horses remain at the equally remote Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Parks in Virginia, located on the northern tip of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Still, Assateague Island remains one of the few places in the United States where you can see wild horses roam freely. This is why, as the NPS reminds on its visitor website, it’s especially important to “give the horses the space they need.” In other words, if you visit, don’t try to touch or tame these animals.

Let wild horses be wild.

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