Monday, September 12, 2016

The Wild Ponies of Assateague Island

Assateague ponies walk the beach.

The 300 or so wild ponies that make their home on the 37-mile barrier island named Assateague are a national treasure. How they got there is up to debate. Some believe they’re descendants of survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon some 350 years ago. Others surmise they're descended from herds local farmers brought to the island to graze tax-free. No matter how or why they came to inhabit this picturesque island, they are a wonder to behold. A glimpse of them grazing in the marshes, running on the beach, or swimming in the ocean evokes sentiments of freedom, mystery, and romance.

Assateague Island stretches from Maryland to Virginia off the Delmarva Peninsula on the Atlantic Coast. It enjoys protection from development and commercialism through the federal government via the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Department of Natural Resources. In 1965, an act of Congress designated it Assateague Island National Seashore. Left in its natural state, it’s subject to all the elements of nature without help from humans. A simple wire fence at the Virginia/Maryland state line separates each half of the island. The NPS manages the Maryland ponies, while The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd.

I’ve been visiting Assateague for more than ten years and never tire of its beautiful coastline, four-wheeling on its beaches, swimming in its waters, and, of course, seeing its beautiful ponies.

One of the best ways to enjoy the island is to visit via the sleepy little town of Chincoteague, Virginia, just minutes from Assategaue's beach. The ponies living on this end of the island are wild but not free. The CVFC guards them closely within acres of fenced land, limiting contact with humans. Interaction with people endangers the animals in a variety of ways: they’ve been hit and killed by automobiles and become accustomed to “people food,” unhealthy for them. They are also known to bite, kick, and injure those who get too close.

The ponies are herded three times a year – April, July, and October - for a head count and, if needed, medical care. July’s roundup is open to the public and a huge event. This is when the CVFC Saltwater Cowboys herd the animals for their annual Pony Week, which includes the Walk, Penning, Swim, Auction, and Carnival. This summer I had the pleasure of participating in my first Pony Week.

Saltwater Cowboys round up the north herd and walk them down the beach.

The events kicked off with the Pony Walk on Monday morning. At 5 am, my family ventured out to the north beach to watch the Cowboys escort 100+ ponies down the shoreline to newly built holding pens within the park. At that time, the public had the opportunity to view the ponies up close, although feeding and handling them was, as always, prohibited.

On Wednesday morning, more than 40,000 visitors flocked to Chincoteague, many before dawn, to watch the Cowboys move the animals from their pens in the national seashore park to marshes across from the island and, when the slack tide was just right, across the channel to Chincoteague.

The Pony Swim was quite a spectacle. The ponies, all natural swimmers, swam the channel in neck deep water while the Cowboys led them to shore. In the Swim's 91 year history not one pony has ever been lost.

Once on land, the Cowboys walked the ponies through town to the carnival grounds and penned them overnight. While there, veterinarians examined them for potential health issues and injuries.

A hungry foal munches on hay after the Pony Swim and walk through town.

On Thursday morning, the CVFC auctioned off this year’s foals. The auction has been an island tradition since 1925 to manage the population so resources aren't depleted. Once purchased, the ponies can be transported anywhere in the United States, and people come from all over to buy a Chincoteague pony. This summer, 57 ponies were sold (including 7 buybacks which were returned to the island) at an average bid of $2,659. Total sales were $151,55o. All proceeds benefit the fire department, currently raising funds for a new firehouse.

Early Friday morning, with much less fanfare, the cowboys led the ponies back to Assateague Island where they resumed their natural lifestyle away from the interruption and interference of humans.

Assateague ponies at home on the beach.

On the Maryland side of the island, the ponies roam free within the confines of the national seashore. They have become acclimated to humans and have no problem raiding campsites and picnic areas for food. For everyone’s safety, interaction with them in any way – getting within ten feet, touching or feeding them – is forbidden because of their unpredictability as wild animals. Violators may be fined. There are no roundups, no Pony Swims, no auctions. The NPS manages the herd’s population with contraception. There is no veterinary care unless due to accident or injury. The Maryland herd is truly wild and free.

The best way to enjoy the Maryland half of Assateague is via Ocean City, as different from Chincoteague Island as night is to day. Ocean City is an exciting vacation spot with more restaurants and shopping than you can fit into your stay, amusement parks, a 2.5-mile boardwalk, and the accompanying crowds and traffic. A visit to Assateague is a terrific way to relax from all that sensory overload.

Whether you choose to enjoy the wild horses of Assateague from the eclectic Ocean City or the idyllic Chincoteague Island, a visit is a must to-do on your bucket list.


Lydia said...

I'd never heard of the wild horses of Assateague before, but it sure sounds like you had a wonderful time hanging out near them.

This is definitely going on my bucket list!

Marianne Sciucco said...

Thanks for writing Lydia. I hope you do get a chance to visit Assateague. My words don't do it justice.