Maryland vs Virginia
There are two separate herds on each state side of Assateague that are managed by different agencies. The National Park Service manages the Maryland herd and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the herd in Virginia. There is a fence at the state line on Assateague that separates the two herds. This website focuses on the Maryland side of Assateague Island, but if you’d like to learn more about the Virginia side, you can visit the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge website.
About the Wild Horses in Maryland
Legend has it that the wild horses of Assateague Island are descendants of horses that swam ashore after a Spanish galleon shipwrecked off the coast. However, the more accepted theory is that colonial farmers from the mainland brought the horses to the barrier island to avoid taxation of livestock. There is no written record of either of these theories, however, it’s believed that the horses that roam wild and free today are descendants of domestic horses. They have adapted to the harsh heat and buggy conditions during the Summer months, and thrive during the freezing cold temperatures and high winds in the Winter. Their diet consists mainly of the saltwater grasses and freshwater ponds found throughout the island. Due to their poor diet and harsh environment, the horses that roam Assateague today are smaller than an average American farm horse.
Where and when can I see the horses?
Assateague’s most popular question! The herd here roams freely throughout the entire Maryland side of the island (approximately 22 miles long). The most active time for the horses in the developed areas are in the warmer months of late Spring, Summer and early Fall. The horses tend to head to the Northern ends of the island where the campgrounds are (Assateague Maryland State Park has one large oceanside Campground and the National Seashore has an oceanside and bayside campground). Visitors can often spot the horses in the day-use beach parking lots. On hot, muggy days when the wind is blowing in from the West, the horses can be found on the beach looking for relief from the biting green-headed flies and mosquitoes.
In the cooler weather, the horses can still be seen in the “developed areas”, but many head to the backcountry areas along the OSV section of the National Seashore. Most days on the island, just a slow drive through the National Seashore section will allow visitors to spot a few horses. They can be more scarce during the colder months, especially on windy days.
When you visit the island and you encounter a horse, please be respectful and remember that these are wild animals. Stay 40 feet away from them and do not stop your car in the middle of the road or pull off on busy roads to take photos. There are protected bike paths all throughout the island. There are also several hiking trails in the National Seashore section. If you’re looking for a close encounter with the horses, we recommend parking your car and biking or walking to get the full wildlife experience that the island has to offer. Just remember: a kick or a bite is not worth the perfect photo so keep your distance!
Fun Facts About Maryland’s Horse Herd
- As of Spring 2021, there are approximately 80 horses on the Maryland side of the island. A census is taken every year to report which horses have likely passed away and count any new foals that have been born in the past year.
- Each horse has a unique code to identify it called a “Keiper Number” and each horse is also given a unique name. The names come from auctions or raffles hosted by the National Seashore’s non-profit partner, Assateague Island Alliance. They offer a field guide to the horses which is great to help you identify the name of each horse you encounter on your trip.
- The Maryland herd population is controlled by the National Park Service using a unique birth control method with a contraceptive that is administered through darts. The population is controlled due to the environmental impacts that the horses have on the island. The goal is to keep the herd between 80 and 100 horses.
- The horses naturally form bands that typically consist of at least one dominant stallion and at least one mare (mature female horse) or several mares and their young. Stallions that are coming “of age” will try to show their own dominance and attempt to steal mares from different bands. Many times the fights can be bloody and unpredictable, so if you are visiting and happen to encounter a true stallion fight, be sure to use extra caution and stay more than 40 feet away from the action.
Remember the Island
If you love Assateague as much as we do, you may want to take something home to remember your trip! We’ve created a few unique souvenirs to have shipped directly to your home.