Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Wild Horses of Assateauge

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Wild Horses of Assateauge Island - courtesy of NPS.gov

Assateague Island is a top birding destination for many, but it offers much more magic to its visitors besides the Atlantic Flyway stopover that it is for our migrating winged friends.  A lot of you may or may not know that Assateague Island National Seashore offers its visitors the chance to see wild horses running free on this barrier beach island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland.  This post aims to answer some burning questions about the mysterious wild horses of Assateague.


Where can I see wild horses in the United States?

 One can view wild horses at the Assateague Island National Seashore, a barrier beach island located off of the coast of Virginia and Maryland. 


How many horses are there total?

There are approximately 300 wild horses of Assateague.  A herd of 150 exists on the Virginia side and another herd of 150 makes its way on the Maryland side of the island.  There is a fence that divides the Virginia side from the Maryland side of the island.  These herds are divided into smaller groups of two to twelve horses that occupy certain territories.


Are Assateague Island's wild horses really wild?

No.  The horses seen on Assateague Island are actually considered feral even though they live in a wild environment.  This means that the horses seen on the island are actually descendants of domesticated horses.  The "wild horses" were able to adapt to the conditions found on the island in order to survive.  This has to tell you something about the type of animal we are dealing with.  To be able to make due with what they have is astounding.


Where did the horses come from?

Well, that really depends on who you ask.  Some say that a Spanish galleon sank off the coast of Assateague Island in the 1600s and the horses were able to swim to shore.  Others say that early colonial settlers allowed their horses to roam free and graze at this location.  There is no hard proof for either theory at this point in time.    


What kind of role do humans play in the lives of the wild horses?

  •  Each year on the last Wednesday in July, the wild horses of Assateauge on the Virginia side swim across Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island where they are auctioned off.  This is done to control the rising number of horses which could be detrimental to the island's ecosystem and the future of the herds. 
  • On the Maryland side of the island, some of the female horses are given contraception via dart gun which controls the birthing levels.  The vaccine is not harmful to the horses.
  • A team employed by Assateague Island National Seashore is in charge of making sure that visitors do not get within 10 feet of the horses.  It is forbidden to feed them.  If you are caught doing either, you'll be slapped with a $100 fine.

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    Wild Horse of Assateague on Shoreline - Courtesy of Wikitravel.org





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