Assateague & Chincoteague

8 01 2013

In the interest of clearing up what may be common confusion about Chincoteague and Assateauge islands and the wild horses that live there, Kay Frydenborg, author of Wild Horse Scientists, agreed to write a guest post about the topic. Yes, these East Coast islands are most of a continent and a world away from the West’s wild horses, but population management and fertility control are common topics. So here we go. I hope you’ll leave any questions for Kay in the comments!

Sorting Out the Wild Horses of Assateague Island

Since writing Wild Horse Scientists, I’ve run into a lot of folks who are a bit confused about the famous Chincoteague ponies, and that confusion is well-founded. It is confusing. For starters, the animals most people think of when they think of Chincoteague ponies are not ponies, technically, but small horses. And except for a few days each July during Pony Penning (which many people know about from Marguerite Henry’s classic children’s book Misty of Chincoteague and the movie that was adapted from the book), the wild ponies don’t live on the island of Chincoteague, but rather on the larger, uninhabited nearby island of Assateague.

To further complicate things, Assateague Island straddles two states (Maryland and Virginia), and two different federal agencies are in charge of overseeing the wild horses in each state (National Park Service in Maryland, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Virginia). On top of that, the wild “ponies” on the Virginia side of the island are legally the property of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which has been running the famous round-up, the swim across the channel to Chincoteague, and the foal auction for many years.  The horses are not only rounded up for this annual event (which provides needed funds for the fire company and much tourism for the town), but they are also gathered at other times and given routine immunizations and veterinary and farrier care. Their population is kept at a maximum of about 150 by means of the foal auction alone; no contraceptives are used to limit the herd size in Virginia.

On the Maryland side of Assateague, home of the Assateague Island National Seashore (as well as a Maryland state park within the national park!), the wild horses are managed quite differently. They’re called horses here, not ponies, and managed in a mostly hands-off manner, with no human handling and no roundups. Unless a horse becomes gravely ill or injured and the Park Service determines urgent medical care or euthanasia is required to spare undue suffering, the only human intervention in the lives of these horses is the remote darting (via special rifles) of the contraceptive PZP. Over the 25-plus years that PZP has been used as the sole management tool, the numbers of horses has gradually stabilized to sustainable levels. At the same time, these horses are observed closely from a distance, and careful records are kept for the purposes of effective management of the PZP program and ensuring that a viable gene pool is maintained among the horses.

Though all of the wild horses of Assateague Island descend from the same original herd, after the island was split with the National Seashore designation in 1962, these different management strategies on the two sides of Assateague have resulted in some real differences in the makeup of the herds. You can read much more about these differences, and the 300-plus year history of these unique wild horses, in my book. I hope you’ll check it out!



12 responses

8 01 2013

Thank you for the clarification. I forgot the island was split in two, but didn’t realize that ONLY the Virginia horses were rounded up for the ‘Pony Penning’ on Chincoteague.

8 01 2013
Alice Billings

Thank you very much….I knew nothing of the details of these herds….just a faraway name recognition. Guess I will have to buy your book… the interest of more education…and how the practices there might influence some BLM’s out here in the West. Thank you again…and thanks to TJ, of course for bringing this to our attention.

20 01 2013
kathryn frydenborg

Thank you, Alice! I hope you enjoy the book, and find some good info within!

8 01 2013
Lynda Larsen

Great information! Thank you for taking the time to provide this, and thanks, TJ, for taking the initiative to pursue it. I look forward to reading the book.

8 01 2013

Thank you, Kay, for giving us another resource of information to soak up! It all helps the horses themselves to have the best knowledge and, as BLM is fond of saying, *science* available.

9 01 2013
Toppyrocks/ Rachel

When you say the island is split, do you mean just by an invisible boundary that you would find on maps, or is there an actual fence or some other barrier to keep the Maryland and the Virginia horses/ponies seperate?

9 01 2013

Good question, and one I had to look up. From this website, “A fence along the Virginia/Maryland State line separates Assateague Island’s ponies into two herds.” Click on the “Wild Pony Viewing” link or scroll down to get to this section. Hope you’re well, Rachel!

20 01 2013

Tj, loved your piece. One or two other things. The Chincoteague ponies( you are right they are actually horses) are also protected from public intervention by a series of fences to protect certain fragile habitats and prevent the general public from too much interaction with the horses. The south island actually has two fenced areas one is the north side. The horses do have herd and band hierachy and much land to roam on. The best way to see Chincoteague ponies on the south end of Assateague or Virginia side is via boat tours. On the north or Maryland side of the Island there are no limits of contact. Horses have free run of the entire north island. This makes for some on going issues as people sometimes don’t realize that it is illeagal to feed the horses or to pet them. In fact one can be fined if caught feeding or interacting with the horses. They have a lot of the same problems with visitors as they have with the Corolla herd in NC. Still the 3 best managed herds in the east are Assateague, Chincoteague, and the Shackleford Island (NC)horses. Assateague is the first herd to use PZP successfully and is the herd that has used it the longest. I would love to read your book.

I also have a group on Facebook that includes photographers, rescues and people who are pooling their resources to find the best resources and logistic support to visit all the east coast herds and history of the herds. There are a number of Island wild herds from Georgia to Maryland and even a herd off the coast of Canada. Would love to have you in the group if you have time.
We are called the East Coast Wild Horse Caravan Group :

20 01 2013

Thanks for the additional information! But Kay Frydenborg ( wrote Wild Horse Scientists AND this guest post! I’ll direct her to your group. Do check out Kay’s book; it’s outstanding!

20 01 2013
kathryn frydenborg

Linda, thank you! You are absolutely right; the wild horses (ponies) on the south (Virginia) end of Assateague are actually more restricted than those on the Maryland side. I spent most of my time, researching my book, on the north side, and there, you can get very close to the horses. They can go anywhere, and so can the humans. This does lead to some problems, since some people don’t realize that these horses, who may appear quite tame, are actually wild and unpredictable. They are accustomed to humans, but not trained in any way. I’m told that people do really foolish things, such as placing their two-year-olds on the backs of some of these wild horses, trying to braid their tails, etc., not to mention feeding them things that could kill them! People have been hurt, and so have horses, who are occasionally killed on the road when people stop their cars and try to feed the horses.

I hope you enjoy my book, and I will check out your group. Thanks!

9 10 2014
Donna Lowe

I was told that the horses hooves or maintain once a year by volunteers is that correct

10 10 2014

Not on Assateague. For the Chincoteague herd, I don’t know; there’s an auction every year for some of those horses through the local fire department.

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