On eve of pony swim, some horse sense for Assateague visitors

July 26, 2011|By Michelle Deal-Zimmerman | The Baltimore Sun

Tomorrow is the annual summertime pony swim across the Assateague channel. The wild ponies that inhabit the Chincoteague, Va., portion of the Assateague Island National Seashore will be rounded up sometime around "slack tide" and herded across the water to the carnival grounds, where they will be auctioned off. It's a big event that draws thousands to the region every year.

If you're in Ocean City, it's probably no more than a 90-minute drive or less to the southern end of the shore in Chincoteague, Va. (Tomorrow it may take longer depending on traffic, of course.)

Even if you don't make it down that far, you can still see the wild ponies on Maryland's side of the national park, just a short drive from Route 50. If you haven't been, it's worth the trip, but you should be prepared for your encounter with island's inhabitants.

Earlier this month, Assateague released two new initiatives aimed at protecting visitors from what are, after all, wildhorses, and also protecting the animals from overly friendly humans.

The new rules prohibit visitors from coming within 10 feet of the animals. It used to be some vague "bus length" distance, about 20 feet, but now the rules say you need to step back even further.

Park officials warn that while the animals are used to people, that doesn't mean they are tame.

"Visitors often mistake habituation for tameness and that's when the problems start", said Trish Kicklighter, park superintendent. "Unfortunately, every year, some will learn the hard way by getting bitten or kicked, often severely."

There was already a ban on touching the ponies, but now that's been extended to anything you might do to entice them to come close - such as offering food. The new rules also call for campers to secure food properly in hardsided storage, such as a locker or a vehicle, when not in use. Apparently, the horses can become aggressive when they need to nosh.

Kicklighter said an 18-year-old stallion that became dangerously aggressive in pursuit of human food recently had to be removed from the island.

"Although we've found him a good home, it's a shame that it had to come to that."

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