by Claudia Padilla
Named consistently as one of Maryland’s most visited recreational areas,
Assateague State Park averages well over one million guests annually.
This barrier island park, located on the Atlantic Ocean, is known
nationally for the wild horses that freely roam its 850 acres of beach,
sand dune, salt marsh and maritime forest.
The wild horses, popularized by Marguerite Henry’s children’s book
“Misty of Chincoteague,” have occupied the island for approximately 350
years. Several colorful stories provide possible explanations to their
origins. One legend tells of a Spanish galleon running aground along the
coast in the 17th century, freeing the horses; a second suggests pirates
may have abandoned them. The most logical theory traces the horses back
to the early 1600s when settlers used the animals to round up cattle
grazing on the island. Over the years, these formerly domesticated
horses became wild, having been forgotten or left behind by their
In 1968, Assateague Island National Seashore (AINS), located adjacent to
the state park, acquired its original “token herd” of 28 horses through
donations from descendants of the area’s early settlers. Today the state
park assists the National Park Service in managing the Maryland herd of
155 horses. The parks provide neither veterinary care nor supplemental
feeding; because no natural predators exist on the island. The only
intentional contact is to administer birth control to handle herd size.
(Each mare is allowed to breed once, after which they are injected with
an anti-fertilization drug that prevents them from conceiving again.)
Carl Zimmerman, chief of resource management at AINS, says the horses
aren’t particularly unique, of no unusual breed or origin. They are
often referred to as ponies due to their small stature although the
animals are genetically horses, more specifically related to standard
breeds and quarter horses. After years of living in the
barrier island environment, they have adapted by maintaining shorter,
stockier builds that allow them to better navigate the unstable grounds
of a marsh. Thick winter coats help protect them from strong ocean winds
and from the many insects found on the island. Zimmerman finds their
intrigue is their feisty ability to remain wild, despite the millions of
summer vacationers entering their habitat.
This constant interaction with the public has threatened the wildness of
the horses and often results in accidents. Regular incidents include
vehicles colliding with horses and visitors venturing too close getting
kicked or bitten. The park staff encourages guests to enjoy the horses
from a safe distance, but prohibits physical contact, feeding and/or
teasing of the animals.
Since they feed on cordgrass, greenbrier and even poison ivy, the salt
marsh of the Sinepuxent Bay is the best place to see the horses.
Freshwater ponds and beach grasses are integral parts of their diets as
Assateague State Park Manager Mike Riley says that the
horses are a definite attraction, second only to the park’s main draw –
its idyllic oceanfront location. While its amenities include 350 camping
sites, bike trails, a marina, multiple fishing and picnicking areas,
wildlife viewing and nature programs, for many summer visitors it is
simply the perfect place to spend the day relaxing, sunbathing and
Claudia Padilla has worked at Assateague State Park as a member
of the Maryland Conservation Corps and on the Lower Eastern Shore under
Americorps conducting environmental education programs. Her service
concluded, she is currently seeking a career in the field of
Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2005 issue
of the The Maryland Natural Resource magazine.