A gang of horses: Assateague visitors experience horses gone wild

Published on: July 27, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: July 27, 2022 at 3:10 pm EDT

Assateague's stallion named Phoenix with another pony named Mieke's Noe'lani and her two fillies, one a yearling, and the other just a couple of months old.

The Badowski family had just sat down for dinner at their Assateague Island campsite in May when they spotted wild horses galloping in the distance.

Within seconds, the horses had surrounded the family vacationing from Bel Air, seizing ears of corn still steaming from the grill, ripping open a bag of chips and nosing through their hastily abandoned dinner plates.

“We could barely get out of our chairs in the time it took them to get to our campsite,” said mother Caitlin Badowski, 40. “There were five of us running everywhere and trying to grab everything we could while keeping our distance. One stallion went directly for a huge plastic barrel filled with pretzels. He stomped on it and then threw it up in the air trying to take the lid off of it. It was like a frat party for horses.”

Generations of Marylanders who grew up reading the 1947 children’s novel Misty of Chincoteague” harbor fantasies of regal wild horses racing across the marsh grass. Indeed, as the town of Chincoteague, Virginia, prepares to swim wild horses to the mainland for the annual pony penning and auction — a tradition that resumes Wednesday after a two-year pandemic hiatus — the romance of flowing manes and clattering hoofs ripples far beyond the island.

But many visitors quickly discover that the horses on the Maryland side of the island are truly wild — wild about human food, that is. And they will do just about anything to get it. Even visitors who follow all the posted rules — those who stay 40 feet away and lock up their food — are often stunned by the ponies’ bold quest for snacks.

Sean and Claire Carton were beginning breakfast at their campsite on a chilly morning last November when a group of horses appeared.

A "gang" of wild ponies hang out at a camp site on Assateague Island.

“They do this thing where one pony distracts you,” said Clare Carton, 49, of Roland Park. “One pony came up and kicked sand in my face. And then another came up and stole the package of croissants off the table. They ate the whole thing!”

The couple waved a long metal pole to frighten the horses, but the creatures were unimpressed. The Cartons jumped up and down, yelled and, in desperation, even barked like dogs, but the horses only shot them inquisitive glances between bites of croissant.

“They were relentless,” said Sean Carton, 54. “Once they were clued in that we were dumb enough to leave a pack of croissants on the table, that herd lurked around us for hours.”

“It wasn’t a herd, Sean,” his wife said. “It was a gang. A gang of ponies.”

Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education at Assateague Island National Seashore, said park staff tries just about everything to educate the park’s 2.6 million annual visitors about the dangers of feeding or getting close to horses. Indeed, warning signs are nearly as ubiquitous as bayberry bushes on the island. “Horses bite, kick and charge,” advises one sign, noting there is a $100 fine for feeding or petting horses.

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This year, the park has six full-time staff members — twice as many as in past years — fanning out across the island, advising visitors to stay 40 feet, or about the length of a bus, away from the horses. A group of volunteers dubbed the Pony Patrol does the same.

But some tourists just don’t seem to get the message. Visitors routinely sidle close to the horses for selfies or to touch the horses, like one Speedo-clad man who was kicked in the crotch by a horse in a viral moment a few summer ago. Generations of visitors have fed the horses or left their provisions unattended, giving the animals the chance to develop a taste for human food. Some guests even put their kids on the horses’ backs, Davis said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around,” she said. “You think you have seen it all, and then you have not.”

“In recent decades, we’ve really tried to crack down” on people feeding or touching ponies, Davis said. The park provides a pony-proof locked box under the picnic table at each campsite, she said. Visitors “need to have situational awareness at all times,” she said.

Ponies cool off in the water on Assateague Island.

Assateague, a 37-mile sliver of land that stretches from Ocean City to Chincoteague, is managed by three different agencies. The National Park Service, which Davis works for, maintains most of the land on the Maryland side, known as Assateague Island National Seashore. A Maryland state park encompasses a smaller parcel of land. South of the state border is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Wild horses have lived on the island for at least 300 years, Davis said. Local lore holds that the horses swam to shore from a sunken ship, but it’s more likely that they were left behind by mainland farmers who grazed them there. The island was designated a national seashore in 1965, and campers on the Maryland side have been sharing the land with horses ever since.

On the Virginia side, camping is not permitted and fences separate the horses from visitors. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company manages the herd on the Virginia side, and its agreement with Fish & Wildlife stipulates that the herd must not exceed 150 adults, Davis said. Thus, each year on the last Wednesday in July, fire company volunteers herd foals through the water from Assateague to Chincoteague. The young horses are then sold at an auction the next day.

While the wild horses are often referred to as ponies, they are technically horses, said Jen Britton, a Drexel University administrator who published a scholarly article last year about the interactions between Assateague’s wild horses and humans. The equines of Assateague, though smaller than most horses, are a smidge too big to be termed ponies.

Ponies named Bayberry and Happy shake their manes on Assateague Island.

A stallion, at least one mare and some juveniles form semi-stable bands, Britton said. Some stallions and mares frequently swap partners, while others stay together for years or even decades, she said. Some bands graze contentedly on salt grass and keep away from visitors, while others have developed a taste for human food and the skills to seize it.

“I’ve seen certain bands of horses systematically go from one beach blanket to the next, checking for snacks, and stopping to eat them or moving on if there are none,” said Britton. “I once watched horses eat shrimp off a lit barbecue grill.”

Horses, though technically herbivores, are opportunists, nibbling at whatever they can find. But eating food brought by humans can have serious consequences. One mare died a few years ago after gorging herself on a bag of unattended dog food.

One of the stallions with the heartiest appetite for human food is known as Chip (the nonprofit Assateague Island Alliance awards naming rights for the horses through auctions and raffles). The park service took the unusual step of moving Chip to a Texas wildlife sanctuary in May, noting that since 2017 the stallion had been involved in more than half of all incidents in which humans were injured. “We do not take these decisions lightly, but occasionally it is necessary for the safety of visitors and staff,” the park service wrote in a news release.

Vanessa Bliss, 45, and her husband, Owen Gray, 47, of Patterson Park, can attest to the persistence of Chip. The couple, their two sons and some friends were camping on the island last fall when Chip and his harem surrounded Gray as he dug through the food container they had secured under a picnic table.

“Owen and I have been doing Assateague for 15 years now, and we thought had perfected our pony-proofing,” said Bliss, recounting that in the early years the ponies drained a box of wine the couple had brought. “But here was Owen standing on the picnic table yelling.”

To drive home the message that he owned the island, Chip unleashed a torrent of urine on the couple’s tent. “The ponies just don’t care at all,” said Bliss, a union organizer. Bliss said she felt that the horses had become more aggressive since the pandemic, which she attributed to a greater volume of campers, including more novices, visiting the park. Davis, the park employee, confirmed that the park saw its greatest number of visitors ever in 2020 and 2021.

Britton said that since Chip’s removal, his primary mate, Susi Solé, has taken up with a new stallion named Billy Bob. Susi is pretty aggressive in her own right, Britton said, so it’s unclear whether the band will continue to maraud with the new stallion.

What is clear is that despite Chip’s absence, the horses continue to engage in hijinks. In early June, NASA engineer Ryan Detter was awakened at sunrise in his tent by the sound of hoofs bashing his cooler. Detter, 43, of Remington, had secured his cooler with a strap provided by park rangers, but that didn’t stop the horses from trying to get in.

The horses moseyed through a row of tents, sticking their heads into unzipped flaps. One colt snagged a roll of toilet paper and raced through the dunes with it streaming from his mouth. “You know how dogs get the zoomies?” Detter said, referring to the animals’ wild bursts of energy. “This colt had the zoomies and was running like crazy around the sand dunes with the toilet paper. They are just so used to humans and human products. They’re not scared of us at all.”

Detter and a friend eventually convinced the horses to move along by banging pots and pans.

For the Cartons, the couple who lost their croissants, the horses eventually left when they discovered a nearby group of college students were even more careless with their food. Claire Carton saw the horses amble in that direction and then heard the screams of startled campers.

“I don’t want to give a bad impression because Assateague really is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” she said. “But those horses are assholes.”

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