Where the Wild Ponies Are: Assateague National Seashore

“We’re going to see the ponies!” I honestly had no idea what my mother was talking about when I read that message. What she meant was that she had planned a trip to Virginia for the family this year.

She’d booked us a long weekend over Labor Day on Chincoteague Island, located on the ocean side that weird little doohickey of Virginia. This wasn’t totally unprecedented for us, since the Chesapeake area is a family favorite (my dad and brother are very fond of crab dinners). But I was still unclear as to what the ponies bit was all about, at least until I told my supervisor where we were going and she responded with “Misty of Chincoteague!” I pretended like I knew what she was talking about, and then looked it up when I got home.

As it turns out, Misty and her fellow ponies did not actually live on the island of Chincoteague, but on the nearby island of Assateague.


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Assateague (as-sah-teeg) takes its name from the group of Algonquin Native Americans who occupied it back in the day, and the name means something like “a stream runs between” or “swift-moving water,” a possible reference to the water that separates Assateague from Chincoteague. As you can probably guess, they had a rough go of it starting in the late 17th century when European settlers arrived, displacing the native peoples and eventually forcing them out of Delmarva. While the Assateague people no longer exist as a tribe, their descendants can be found in southern Canada.


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After the Assateague people moved off the island, no one moved onto it. It’s a rather inhospitable land, comprised of ever-shifting sand and a few small springs. The plant life on the island is rough, swamp-like, and largely inedible, and the soil provided little by the way of farming possibilities. Most of the water on the island is brackish, and the salt from the ocean is absorbed by the plants, giving them a higher salt content than on the mainland. Not to mention the place is absolutely swarming with mosquitoes. I kid you not, mosquitoes are swarming creatures, and I have never seen so many mosquitoes as I did on Assateague.


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So, after the people who did want to live there were pushed out, no one wanted to live there. Until the ponies came along.

On the island of Assateague, there is a herd of wild ponies. Much of the literature calls them feral ponies or feral horses, but I think that makes them sound vicious. They’re just out there minding there own, doing what ponies do, and occasionally kicking anyone who’s silly enough to try and mess with that order of things. So I like the word wild better.


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Now, if you remember your American history classes from middle school, you know that ponies are not indigenous to America. They were brought over from Spain and, when they escaped their confines, thrived in the natural environments of North America. As to how these particular ponies ended up on this particular island, there are two competing stories.

The first is that a Spanish galleon transporting people, goods, and horses between Spain and their territorial holdings in the area of what is now Florida foundered in a hurricane. As the ship broke apart, some of the horse on board were able to escape and swim to safety on nearby Assateague. They were largely forgotten and left to their own devices, forgetting in their turn their domesticity.


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The other story is much less romantic, much more American, and, in that way, a bit more believable. Back in the day, landowners were taxed on the basis of their property, including head of livestock. The more horses you owned, the more you paid in taxes. The story goes that gentleman farmers on Chincoteague, looking to avoid hefty taxes, herded all their animals over to Assateague, where tax collectors and auditors wouldn’t find them, with the intention of bringing them back to Chincoteague when they were needed. If that story is true, then the horses must not have been deemed necessary on Chincoteague and were left to their own devices on Assateague until they became completely wild animals.

Either way, the horses that ended up on Assateague adapted to their environment, and their descendants are able to survive in the harsh environment. They are smaller in size than normal horses, largely because of their diet, and they’re able to digest things with a high salt content, which makes them rather round in the belly section.

To this day, the ponies run wild on Assateague, which is now a national seashore.


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Visiting Assateague

Getting there: As far as I know, there’s no public transit system across Chincoteague Island, so you’ll have to drive. You’ll have to take the bridge to Chincoteague, then follow the main road straight across the island to another bridge, which will take you to Assateague.

Admission: There is a vehicle fee of $20, which gets you a pass good for 7 days. Since this is a National Park, any National Park passes are good here as well. As always, there is no fee for people entering the park on foot or bicycle. If you’re at all interested in visiting multiple National Parks, look into getting a pass – it’s one of those things that will save you money in the long run!

Hours: The park itself is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The visitor’s center is open daily from 9 to 5, with some reduced hours in the off season.

Website: You can plan your visit to Assateague National Seashore here.


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