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Creature Feature: Assateague vs. Chincoteague horses

A tail of two herds

You’ve probably heard the terms “Assateague ponies” and “Chincoteague ponies” used interchangeably, so if you’ve ever gotten the two confused or just flat-out thought that they were the same thing, you’re not alone.

If that’s the case, then today you’re going to learn something new! Because the horses are handled by two separate entities–the National Park Service on the Maryland side (your “Assateague ponies”) and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department on the Virginia side (your “Chincoteague ponies,” although they’re technically just on the Virginia side of Assateague Island)–the horses on either side of the barrier are handled separately, too. 

A fence on the Maryland-Virginia line on Assateague separates the two herds of wild horses. Both herds feature horses of the same short and stocky breed, known as the Chincoteague Pony or the Assateague Horse–but again, don’t let the names confuse you. Genetically, no matter what side of the fence they’re on, the horses are pretty much the same.

“The horses that live on the Virginia portion of the island, going back centuries, probably have similar descendants,” said Liz Davis, a public information officer for Assateague at the National Park Service. “They were probably one in the same herd that ran freely around the island.” 

Ponies
They might even be friends if it wasn’t for that fence. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

What are the major differences? 

Since the herds are no different genetically, the major differences between the two lie only in how they’re handled. 

Population control

First, an abbreviated history of the Virginia herd: in the early 20th century, Chincoteague was ravaged by fires. The fire company didn’t have the appropriate equipment to handle the flames that were constantly engulfing the island, so to raise money, they started holding their now-annual Pony Swim and the auction that follows it. (For a pony history that goes back further, read up here.) 

 Today, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department privately owns the Virginia herd. The horses graze on Chincoteague under a grazing permit from the National Fish and Wildlife Service, who owns the land. To continue raising money to this day and to keep the Virginia horse population at 150 or less, as required by the FWS, the yearly pony roundup and auctioning-off keeps the population controlled. 

The Maryland horses, on the other hand, aren’t included in this auction. They’re managed by the National Park Service as wild animals, so to keep the population under control, the Park Service administers birth control to the mares, who are only allowed to birth one foal each. The current population of the Maryland herd is 90. 

“Years ago it was around 170,” Davis said. “Most of their food comes from the salt marsh and we saw a degradation of island resources, so that was the impetus for providing birth control.”

Mares that are on the birth control live an average of 10 years longer, Davis said. The introduction of birth control to the mares also improved the life of the island and allowed other animal species that use the marshes as their habitat to rebound.

Hands-off vs. hands-on approaches

Since many of the Chincoteague foals are auctioned off to the public, the Virginia horses are wormed and vaccinated. They’re also designated to inhabit specific parts of the island, where they’re provided with food and water. This makes them the tiniest bit larger than the Maryland horses, and they’re also sometimes bred to improve the breed’s appearance. 

“Over the years they’ve brought horses in from the mainland to breed them and get pretty colors that might bring big money at auctions,” Davis said. “They’ve brought in other horses over the years.” 

So are either of them ponies?

Because the Maryland horses are considered wild animals by the Park Service, they’re left to fend for themselves in the wild. They’re often called “mutts” because their living conditions–i.e., not-so-great food sources on a marshy island–have forced them to adapt through their short and stocky stature.

While both the Maryland and Virginia horses are closer to the size of ponies, both breeds are genetically horses. They only look like ponies because of the conditions that forced them to adapt. (We can still refer to them as ponies, though–everyone else does.) 

What happens during a major storm?

Delmarva is often hit with big storms as summer nears its end, but luckily, the horses can fend for themselves in foul weather, too. 

“After storms we often ride out, and they’ll just be hanging out on a piece of grass that’s not flooded, just eating,” Davis said. “They’re resilient and used to it.” 

She did say that during a 1992 nor’easter, about a dozen ponies on the north end of the island were lost to the tides–but that’s very rare, and no great losses have happened since. 

“They know how to take cover and that’s the really interesting part of wild horse management,” Davis said. “They’re not taken care of every day. They’re not bred on purpose.” 

Snow ponies
Rain or snow, the island horses can weather just about anything. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

What happens when a horse dies?

Though it might sound like a morbid question, it’s not an uncommon one. What happens to a deceased horse’s body?

It depends on where the horse dies, Davis said. When horses die of natural causes, they tend to go out on their own, and it’s possible that their body might never be found, or found long after the fact. If a horse dies at or near a campground, park officials will move it to a more remote part of the island and let nature take its course. 

And on that note, don’t feed the horses dog food–or any food, for that matter. Even in Virginia, they are wild animals and should be treated as such. Enjoy their beauty from a distance. (And use the Assateague Horse ID app if you’re curious about what their names are!)

Kristin
Kristinhttp://kristinhelf.tumblr.com
Kristin is a writer and photographer in Ocean City, Maryland, and is the content manager for OceanCity.com and other State Ventures, LLC sites. She loves getting reader-submitted stories and photos, so send her an email anytime. She also works part-time at the Art League of Ocean City and the Ocean City Film Festival and lives just off the peninsula with her dog and fiancé. Her photos can be found on Instagram @oc_kristin.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. YOUR ARTICLE HAS GOOBERS: (from a horseman who has actually trained a few feral ponies, mustangs)…

    a HORSE is an Equus caballus that is 14.2 hands or over.
    a PONY is Equus caballus under 14.2
    A Hand is four inches, the .2=2inches (also see 14.3, 15.1 etc).
    A single breed (Arabian, Rocky Mountain, Halflingers, Fjords, some Appys, Chincoteague Ponies, Welsh, etc) can have ponies and horses in the breed. The foal of a 13 hand Chincoteague pony can leave the island and with proper nutrition, grow to 14.2.
    You can line up the (all flaxen chestnut) 7.2 hand mini living here, the old 10 hand Shetland I had, my friends’ 14+ hand Halflingers, and any 16+ hand Belgian you see in Amish country, and they will all look exactly alike… except for size. Equus caballus, from minis to drafts come in body types from slender to chonky. Build has NOTHING to do with horse vs pony.
    Mini breeders liked to say “mini horse” purely because it sounds cool and makes you think that’s actually a tiny Arabian. It is not. It has the phenotype of one, it looks like one, sort of, but it is under 14.2 and it was bred from slightly larger ponies. IT IS A PONY. Mini horse is a marketing ploy.
    Much the same, Assateague likes to tout its “wild horses”. They are neither wild nor horses. They are feral (descended from domestic stock) ponies (under 14.2). Feral. Ponies.
    Their ancestors came with Spanish explorers and English colonists, and may have been horses, but probably were not large ones. Islands tend to shape things: small animals become larger, large ones become smaller (except for that pterosaur that got REALLY HUGE because it could fly from island to island and not be stuck on one). There is even an ancient race of humans who were about 3’6″, on an island (“Remains of one of the most recently discovered early human species, Homo floresiensis (nicknamed ‘Hobbit’), have so far only been found on the Island of Flores, Indonesia.”)
    The Assateague ponies have been separated at the MD/VA border since about 1962 (after the Ash Wednesday Storm of ’62, development ceased, the park service moved in , and a fence went up on the border). The MD herd is managed by the park service, the VA herd by the Chincoteague Fire Co. The Chincoteague herd has had more outside blood added from Arabian to mustang. The MD herd has a more limited gene pool. Chincoteague Ponies in general have a much larger gene pool as many are bred off island.
    TO VISITORS: LOCK UP YOUR FOOD, DRIVE SLOWLY, DO NOT EVEN IMAGINE FEEDING THE PONIES, AND KEEP A VERY POLITE DISTANCE.
    FEEDING THEM CAN KILL THEM: either with colic, founder or choking, or by teaching them bad habits that put them in the path of cars. It can also teach them to be aggressive, which requires removal.

  2. My AAAAARRRRGHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! moment today…

    Proof that you can’t trust everything you read online.

    While some attempt was made to do an interesting article, this line is pure horseshit: “While both the Maryland and Virginia horses are closer to the size of ponies, both breeds are genetically horses. They only look like ponies because of the conditions that forced them to adapt. (We can still refer to them as ponies, though–everyone else does.)”

    EQUUS CABALLUS IS THE DOMESTIC EQUINE, NO MATTER ITS SIZE

    There is precisely ONE species of domestic horse: Equus caballus.

    There are also domestic donkeys, crosses called mules and hinnies, and wild asses and zebras. Przewalski horses are the only WILD horses, and they differ in number of chromosomes from Equus caballus.

    THERE IS ONE, COUNT’EM ONE, DOMESTIC HORSE/PONY SPECIES.

    a HORSE is an Equus caballus that is 14.2 hands or over.

    a PONY is Equus caballus under 14.2

    A Hand is four inches, the .2=2inches (also see 14.3, 15.1 etc).

    A single breed (Arabian, Rocky Mountain, Halflingers, Fjords, some Appys, Chincoteague Ponies, Welsh, etc) can have ponies and horses in the breed. The foal of a 13 hand Chincoteague pony can leave the island and with proper nutrition, grow to 14.2.

    You can line up the (all flaxen chestnut) 7.2 hand mini living here, the old 10 hand Shetland I had, my friends’ 14+ hand Halflingers, and any 16+ hand Belgian you see in Amish country, and they will all look exactly alike… except for size.

    Equus caballus, from minis to drafts come in body types from slender to chonky. Build has NOTHING to do with horse vs pony.

    Mini breeders liked to say “mini horse” purely because it sounds cool and makes you think that’s actually a tiny Arabian. It is not. It has the phenotype of one, it looks like one, sort of, but it is under 14.2 and it was bred from slightly larger ponies. IT IS A PONY. Mini horse is a marketing ploy.

    Much the same, Assateague likes to tout its “wild horses”. They are neither wild nor horses. They are feral (descended from domestic stock) ponies (under 14.2). Feral. Ponies.

    Their ancestors came with Spanish explorers and English colonists, and may have been horses, but probably were not large ones. Islands tend to shape things: small animals become larger, large ones become smaller (except for that pterosaur that got REALLY HUGE because it could fly from island to island and not be stuck on one). There is even an ancient race of humans who were about 3’6″, on an island (“Remains of one of the most recently discovered early human species, Homo floresiensis (nicknamed ‘Hobbit’), have so far only been found on the Island of Flores, Indonesia.”)

    The Assateague ponies have been separated at the MD/VA border since about 1962 (after the Ash Wednesday Storm of ’62, development ceased, the park service moved in , and a fence went up on the border). The MD herd is managed by the park service, the VA herd by the Chincoteague Fire Co. The Chincoteague herd has had more outside blood added from Arabian to mustang. The MD herd has a more limited gene pool. Chincoteague Ponies in general have a much larger gene pool as many are bred off island.

    Misinformation like this in this article is a bit maddening to actual horsemen.

    Do. Your. Research.

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