'I am simply a 'book drunkard.' Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.' L.M. Montgomery

'There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.' Irving Stone

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Assateague Island's Wild Horses

We just took a trip to Maryland and visited the Assateague Island National Seashore. It is known for its bands of wild horses. It was great fun watching the horses roam around the dunes at the beach and roll in the sand. Their beautiful! I was standing on a dune well away from the horses (your suppose to stay at least 100 feet away from them - they bite and kick) and the brown horse I was watching moved up near me and eyed me up trying to decide if I was safe to go past to get to the top of the dune. She decided I was and walked right past me and stopped to eat grass. I was thrilled and scared at the same time. I moved very slowly and slipped past her off the dune, after I got a good close up shot of her of course!
Local folklore says the horses are survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast. As romantic a tale as this is, there are no records to confirm it. More likely they are descendents of 17th century farmers horses. Farmers were required to pay taxes on all mainland livestock and fence them in. So a great alternative to that was let them roam free on the island with an abundant source of food and a natural 'corral' made of water tax-free!

The horses are small in size, more like ponies and have large bellies. They graze on abundant but nutrient-poor saltmarsh cordgrass, saltmeadow hay and beach grass. Which is why they are short in stature. They drink over twice the amount of water that domesticated horses will due to their salty food supply. All the salt in their diet and the water they drink causes the bloated appearance. There are fresh water ponds on the island.

In the winter they stay in the shrub thickets to feed and find protection from the wind. Their thick furry coats protect them from the ferocious winter winds. In the spring the rain brings fresh plant growth and they live in the marshes close to their best food sources. The foals are usually born in late spring. When summer comes the horses flee to the beach to escape the mosquitoes and flies in the marshes. The cool ocean breezes keep the bugs away. When fall comes they can return to the marshes and the abundant grasses.

There are two different herds of horses. The Maryland herd, that roams free on the island and are truly free and the Virginia herd that is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Dept.  The Virgina herd produces 60-90 foals every year. Most of them are sold at the annual auction, after an annual swim across the inlet from Assateague to Chincoteague (the proceeds go to the Fire Dept.) This swim takes place every July and is a big tourist draw. Marguerite Henry made it famous with her book 'Misty of Chincoteague'. They keep their herd at or below 150 adults. The Maryland herd was up to 175 at one time but they have to consider the  ratio of horses to food supply to keep a healthy herd so they began using a non-hormonal, non-invasive vaccine to prevent pregnancy. This vaccine is delivered by a dart to the hindquarters of selected mares each spring. Each mare is allowed to have one offspring. This successfully lowered the birth rate to fewer than 10 foals a year-enough to ensure a sustainable population. Wild horses are highly social animals that form complex, family-based societies and using this contraceptive method they are able to control the population and not interrupt the natural relationships in the wild. Their goal is to keep the herd size to less than 125 horses. There were 122 horses on the island when we were there. The stallions are very territorial and each stallion has several mares in his band and they stay in one particular area and when a young stallion finds himself in another's territory there can trouble!

The island is also full of interesting plants. Bayberry and Highbrush Blueberry grows in abundance there. There is lots of Groundsel, Saltwort and prickly pear cactus too. There are dunes and salt marshes and a maritime forest, and of course the Ocean. The marshes with the dots of red saltwort are gorgeous.

What's this?
 A mushroom turned upside-down! What did you think it is....
sorry couldn't resist:)

There is also an Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV) zone at Assateague Island National Seashore. It contains miles of unspoiled beaches to accommodate OSV enthusiasts and other beach goers. You have to purchase a yearly permit and only 31 vehicles are allowed on the beach at one time. When we were there it was a gorgeous sunny day and the beach was lined with trucks and fishermen. 

quite a set up isn't it?

Lots of people in the water having fun even though it was cold. They just wore wet suits!

Couldn't resist taking a pic of this dog having a ball! Sure miss my girls!
We had a nice picnic and walk and saw some wild turkeys and deer. I didn't get a shot of the deer. There are two kind of deer there, sika and white tail. Hunting is allowed on the island.

If you plan to camp there you don't have to keep the food locked up because of bears, but....
My daughter-in-law took this shot from their campsite. The horses got into their container in the middle of the night with the graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate bars they forgot to put away. Stephanie said they just wanted a s'more! Guess as one family was packing their stuff in the back of the van to leave a horse was pulling it back out looking for food too!

                    Check out Marguerite Henry's books here and here!


  1. It looks lovely...you must have loved every moment!

  2. Peggy Anne, I'm so glad you gave all that detail about how Maryland keeps the herd numbers in check. As you may remember, I and thousands of people have been trying to get the Bureau of Land Management to manage the federally protected wild horse and burro herds out west in this way. Instead, they brutally round up herds with a helicopter, harming and killing horses in the process and destroying families, and then stockpiling the 'excess' horses in holding pens (at taxpayer expense) if they can't adopt them out. Breaking news is that one of the 'adopters' has been adopting large numbers of horses and selling them to slaughter in Mexico. This is so wrong and against the law! Anyone reading this, please go to http://wildhorsepreservation.org to add your name to on-line petitions or call legislators to try to stop this.

    1. Joan, I wonder how you could go about trying to push for this type of population control out there?


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