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
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
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
harsh 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 well.
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 swimming.
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 environmental communications.
The Maryland Natural Resource...Your guide to recreation and conservation in Maryland.