Sunday, June 7, 2015

The horses of Assateague Island

I finally had the opportunity to visit Assateague Island National Seashore. A beautiful and nearly untouched pristine island that's off the coast of Virginia and Maryland.

A population of wild horses lives there, leftovers from settlers who placed them on the island to avoid paying taxes for livestock kept on the mainland. Eventually the herd was forgotten and the horses reverted back to wild.

On the first evening there, at about 7:00 p.m. or so, five horses sauntered into the campground to graze on grass no more than 30 feet from my camper. I was mesmerized as I watched these beautiful equines enjoy an evening meal.

Seemingly ever so peaceful, it was easy to forget they are wild.

I continued watching them as twilight set in.

The group, I learned, is called a "harem," which is a closed family group consisting of one adult male with females and their offspring. A lead mare decides where the group should go, while the stallion protects the harem.

There are two herds of wild horses on the island, one to the north and one to the south. They are kept separated by a fence.

The southern herd is managed by the Chincoteague volunteer fire department who round them up every year for the famous Chincoteague pony swim.

The firefighters auction off the young horses for fundraising. This practice culls the herd and keeps it genetically healthy.

The harem I was observing was part of the northern herd that's managed by the National Park Service.

As it continued to darken, I lit a campfire and I sat before it while continuing to watch the horses graze.

After a little while, I was astonished to see two of the mares join me at the fire.

They stood gazing at the fire with me for a time, then, the lead mare came over pushing the two aside and taking the center, standing right over the fire.

I was amazed to see her dip her nose into the fire not quite sure what to make of the behavior.

We all continued to enjoy the fire and eventually the remaining mare and stallion joined us.

And there we were, two species quietly enjoying a peaceful evening together.

Other campers came along and, seeing the horses around the fire, I heard exclamations of, "Wow, look at this!" and "Can you believe this!" while cameras clicked away.

I never thought I'd experience such while visiting Assateague Island but the moment was surely a gift from the horses who let me share their space and a moment that seemed primordial.

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