Wild Horses of Assateague Island

The island of Assateague is most often spoken about due to the profuse amount of ‘wild horses living there. It is a very beautiful place with a lot of opportunities for recreation and leisure, including a camp ground and national park.

Assateague Island National Seashore is open year-round. Chincoteague National Wildife Refuge hours change seasonally.

The weather during the summer months can be quite humid and even scorching hot at times,  the winter can be harsh too. A diverse and beautiful place.

white and brown horse

Island Overview 

Assateague Island is a 37 mile long island along the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. Most of the Maryland district is managed by the National Park Service as Assateague Island National Seashore.

The State of Maryland manages two miles of the Maryland district as Assateague State Park. The Virginia district is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Assateague Island is in constant change due to shifting sands and tides according to season and weather. There are sandy beaches, salt marshes, maritime forests and coastal bays to discover, a multitude of flora and fauna thrive on the island as well as the wild horses it is so well known for. 

The Park has plentiful opportunities for recreation and leisure including camping and kayaking, as you might imagine the car parks can become busy around peak times between the hours of 11 am – 2 pm.

brown horse near the car

Visitors and wildlife use the roads and parking lots. Be careful when driving on the island due to the nature of the park and it’s animal and human activity. 

The horses 

Well known to many people,  even those who have never had the opportunity to visit the island,  these horses are often referred to as wild, although this is partially true. They are actually feral horses that have become wild in nature after many years of breeding and running free over a multitude of generations.  

They are descendants of domestic animals that have returned to a wild state. They have become resilient enough to survive the most inhospitable conditions at times and poor feeding due to the nature of the Island itself. 

They sometimes go onto the beaches to have a gallop and escape the marshes and mosquitoes there, this can be an unforgettable sight. 

two horses near the road

The horses are split into two main herds, one on the Virginia side and one on the Maryland side of Assateague. They are separated by a fence at the Virginia/Maryland State line. 

These horses will display a wide range of natural behaviours and are fascinating to watch, but the visitor should keep their distance in order to let them behave and live wild and free and to keep yourself safe too. 

desert, bush and horse Assateague Island

As I stood on the sidewalk of the public beach parking lot at Assateague Island National Park, watching the horses walk between the rows of cars on the hot concrete, I felt that I didn’t belong.

There were five horses walking my direction, towards the sand I was standing on and the grasses growing there. I started taking pictures as fast as I could, all the while trying to move out of the way. 

Others were doing the same…turning to stare and whip out their cameras as fast as possible, like we were seeing freaks at the carnival. Only, in reality, we were the freaks, and the horses were watching us. We were stumbling our way through taking pictures, and they were gracefully plodding among us. I was amazed by their patience…and thankful for it!

We saw this guy as soon as we turned into Assateague Island National Park.

grazing horse

The park ranger I had been talking to about the horses had warned me stay at least 10 feet away, as many people had been bitten or kicked if they got too close. As two horses came walking my direction, I realized my back was against a large bush, and there was another horse around the bush on the left. The best I could do was scoot around the right side, and hope I didn’t move fast enough to startle the horse that was only three feet away at this point!

He’s keeping his eyes on me as he gets closer.

Every parking lot on Assateague Island was full. People were out on the beach in full force, with their kites and bogey boards, umbrellas and suntan lotion. The Ranger said the horses wouldn’t go near the beach with all the people present, so I enjoyed the hot sun and wave jumping for a couple of hours, but got impatient to track down the horses I had come to see.

I drove around the Island for a while, as near the marshes as I could, but didn’t see any horses. As I continued to drive, the concrete road turned into sheer white sand.

There was a sign that said I had to empty the air out of my tires before continuing, and the vehicle had to be a 4-wheel drive, which my rental car was not. I hopped out and started trekking on foot, walking in sand so deep and soft that I sank in up to my ankles.

None of my previous sand-walking tricks were keeping me from kicking up sand with each step. But there were the horses…on my left! They were staying on the other side of the ridge line from the beach, away from the people. They were still a good 100 yards away, but I was able to see them in their natural environment, and they were breath-taking. The 8 hours I had driven for just this moment was completely worth it!

wild horse Assateague Island

According to the Ranger, the Assateague horses have been here since the 1600’s when a Spanish ship sank not far off land. Prior to that they were domesticated hence they are technically feral. There are just over 100 wild horses on the Maryland side, and around 150 on the Virginia side. 

The two sides are fenced off to keep the herds apart. Measures have been put in place to keep the population down…birth control and auctions being a few. Even though I understand the need for such measures, I was again saddened that we humans had to interfere with these stunning creatures.

I wanted to just shoo everyone away and yell “leave them alone!” at the top of my lungs. But then I would have had to leave too, and that would have saddened me even more.

They’ve adapted to this new version of their “wild” life, and have learned to coexist with us humans. But, even though they’ve let us in to their space so well, they are still wild horses, and this is still their home. I’m just an interloper, and they’ll remind me if I’m not acting like an appropriate guest.

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3 Comments

  1. The Spanish shipwreck was named La Galga and ran ashore on Assateague on September 5, 1750

    1. Deb Adadjo says:

      Thank you John! 🙂

  2. Oh wow, never heard of this place before but it looks amazing!

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