Text and images copyright Heather Forcier

No one is certain of their origin: the ponies may have swum ashore from a sinking Spanish ship, or perhaps they are descendants of livestock that somehow escaped ownership of the area's original human inhabitants. But today, over two hundred wild ponies inhabit the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague, located in both states of Maryland and Virginia along the coast. Many of us grew up reading the Marguerite Henry books about Misty of Chincoteague, but perhaps did not truly realize that such a place actually existed, that wild horses in fact roam areas along the eastern coast of the United States.

Surviving in their harsh environment, the ponies ingest a fair amount of salt, both from the salt water and salt in the marsh grasses. This makes their bellies appear somewhat bloated, although with an eleven month gestation period, many of the mares are also typically pregnant, which also accounts for their rounded look.

The herds are maintained by government agencies, and brands can be seen on some of the ponies. To keep populations reasonable, an annual round up of the ponies swims them across at a slack tide (in between high and low tide, when the water currents are most forgiving). This brief event draws in a large number of tourists. Foals are auctioned off, then the mares and stallions are released back to roam the islands again.


Accustomed to tourists, many of the ponies are actually quite tolerant of human presence, although visitors are warned that being wild creatures, maintaining a respectful distance and acting cautiously is prudent.

The ponies share their environment with a variety of other wildlife, including deer, endangered Delmarva fox squirrels, and a list of both resident birds and a number of species in transit during their migration. Of special note is thousands of Snow Geese that congregate in the islands' pools. It is difficult to go anywhere on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and not come across wildlife activity.