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How did the wild horses come to be in the Ocean City area? 
Submitted by Ben P, Elysburg, Pennsylvania August 10, 2017
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Centreville, VA

Insider since: 2010

Answered: August 10, 2017

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There have been lots of theories and legends about the wild (more correctly "feral")horses of Assateague and their origin. The most common currently accepted belief is that they are descendants of horse grazed on the barrier islands. An interesting part of the story is that these horses may have been grazed there to keep them out of view from tax collectors, avoiding a colonial tax on livestock. You can find out more about the horses here.


Hunt Valley and Ocean City

Insider since: 2010

Answered: August 10, 2017

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Well.... no one knows for sure and there are lots of plausible theories.  Here is a summary from npplan.com

Horses have been on Assateague Island for over 300 years. Though nobody knows for sure how they got there, it is certain that they were not originally wild. Domesticated horses could have swam ashore from sinking ships or could have been thrown off of ships that had run aground in attempt to lighten and refloat the ship. Another theory is that during colonial times, residents on the mainland brought horses to graze on the island to avoid taxation on animals living on the mainland. Regardless, today the horses are wild and, for the most part, left to fend for themselves.

While wild horses roam both ends of Assateague Island, you are most likely to see them at the Maryland section. This is because that in the Virginia section the horses are privately owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and are corralled so that they can only roam certain areas (this area is very large, so you will not see typical corrals). A fence keeps them from wandering into Maryland. I did not see any horses in the Virginia section during my day at the park.

Each year the horses are rounded up by the Fire Department and taken to Chincoteague Island where they are auctioned off to raise money for the department. Most of the foals are sold, which keeps the herd to the permitted 150 horse limit. This is a long standing tradition and was around long before the Fire Department took control of the herd. Called the Pony Penning Festival, this is a big event that takes place on the last Wednesday in July. Horses that are not sold are returned to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

The horses in the Maryland section of the park are owned by the National Park Service. You can’t avoid seeing horses in Maryland for they are everywhere—in the streets, in the parking lots, on the beaches, on the trails, and even in the campgrounds.

This summary is from nps.org

Assateague's wild horses are well known, even to many people who have never been to the island. The "wild" horses on Assateague are actually feral animals, meaning that they are descendants of domestic animals that have reverted to a wild state. Horses tough enough to survive the scorching heat, abundant mosquitoes, stormy weather and poor quality food found on this remote, windswept barrier island have formed a unique wild horse society. Enjoy their beauty from a distance, and you can help make sure these extraordinary wild horses will continue to thrive on Assateague Island.

Local folklore describes the Assateague horses as survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast. While this dramatic tale of struggle and survival is popular, there are no records yet that confirm it. The most plausible explanation is that they are the descendants of horses that were brought to barrier islands like Assateague in the late 17th century by mainland owners to avoid fencing laws and taxation of livestock.