Some say the ponies are escapees from a Spanish shipwreck, others say they belonged to early settlers along the Eastern Shore who brought the ponies to the islands in the 17th Century to avoid taxes. Either way, they are wild and beautiful and they call Assateague and Chincoteague home. The small stature of these animals is most likely attributable to their lean diet of salt grass and marsh plants. They are genetically horses, but called ponies due to their stature. When sold at the Chincoteague pony-penning auctions and domesticated, the young horses tend to grow bigger than they do when left on the island. Approximately 300 horses live on Assateague Island, 150 in Maryland and 150 in Virginia.
The National Park Service manages the Maryland herd and keeps them in their wild state. No more or less attention or treatment is given the horses than is given to the other species of animals on the island. The Park Service does administer contraception to prevent overpopulation. The horses on the Virginia side are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and are rounded up and some sold off each year at the pony-penning, a July event that has been going on since 1924. Because these horses will live among the general land-based equine population, more veterinary attention is given them.
There are approximately 1000 domesticated Assateague ponies living off-island, either auctioned off or bred from original Chincoteague Island stock.
On Assateague and Chincoteague, please treat the ponies with respect and stay away. They are wild and can hurt you. There is a fine for luring a pony to you or for touching a pony. Keep your distance and enjoy these wild inhabitants of our barrier beaches.