Assateague (and Chincoteague)

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Courtnee Morton, DVM on Dec. 13, 2022
Assateague/Chincoteague horses on the beach

Reviewed for accuracy December 13, 2022.

The Assateague and Chincoteague are two rare U.S. horse breeds, both of which are nearly identical in physical attributes and characteristics. They also inhabit the same island of Assateague off the coast of Virginia and Maryland, although each herd is divided by a fence separating the two states. The National Park Service oversees the Assateague herd residing on the Maryland half of the island, while the Chincoteague live in Virginia and are managed by Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

Physical Characteristics

The Assateague and Chincoteague breeds are found in various colors, although they are often seen in pinto. Standing at about 12 to 14 hands high (48-56 inches, 114-142 centimeters), their legs are small yet strong. Their withers, meanwhile, are prominent and their ears and muzzles are small. These lightly built breeds also have unique wide-spaced eyes.

Personality and Temperament

Although accustomed to human activity, the Assateague and Chincoteague are independent breeds that usually run about their daily lives ignoring the presence of people.

History and Background

There are various theories as to how the Assateague and the Chincoteague came to reside on the island of Assateague off the Virginian and Maryland coast. One theory suggests that the breed is a descendant of the horses that were aboard a trade ship prior to the discovery of the New World. Once it became shipwrecked, the horses that survived supposedly found refuge on the island and propagated there. These Spanish horses soon evolved into the Assateague and the Chincoteague. When the colonials came to the island, they found it occupied by small horses. Another theory claimed that these horses were brought to and left on the island by pirates who roamed this coastal region.

Although neither theory seems probable, such wild stories are still told on the island.

In truth, the Assateague and Chincoteague breeds came to be where they are now because of importation by Virginia colonials. In 1649, fewer than 500 horses were left in the colony and so a concerted effort was made to bring more horses. By 1679, however, colonials began to have problems with the rapid growth of the imported horse population.

As a solution, the government put a stop to horse importation. Taxes were levied and the owners of the horses were required to create penned enclosures for their herd. In desperation, some of the breeders brought their stock to the Assateague Island.

Health and Care

The ecological balance among the feral Assateague and Chincoteague breeds is rigorously maintained. In fact, they live without any human aid. The coarse marsh cordgrass, which accounts for about 80 percent of their diet, is extremely salty. These increased sodium levels also cause the horses to have abnormally high fresh water intake.

Each herd is kept at around 150 in number; the Chincoteagues are rounded up once a year and some of the foals are auctioned off to preserve an appropriate herd size and to fundraise for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

Featured Image:

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health