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
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 boogey 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 breathtaking. The 8 hours I had driven for just this moment was completely worth it!
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