Few horseback rides are as much fun as those on an ocean beach. Assateague Island National Seashore, home of the “wild” ponies, is one of the best. On Maryland’s Atlantic coast, just south of the resort town of Ocean City, Assateague offers an almost endless, wide sandy beach that invites long, lazy, relaxing ambles for horse and rider.
The beach is open for horseback riding from mid-October through mid-May. That’s ideal; there are no crowds and no bugs, and most of the time the weather is moderate enough to be rideable, although the wind can be bracing (to put it mildly), and sometimes you have to bundle up like the Michelin Man.
You share the beach with shorebirds, folks looking for shells, and families spending quality time together. Many people bring their dogs, which must be leashed. Almost as many bring cameras, and you can be sure you’re going to be tagged on someone’s Facebook page. Everyone waves and a lot of people ask questions. Number 1 is if they can rent a horse somewhere. (The answer is “no.” There are no outfitters offering trail rides.) Keep watching the water. As often as not, a pod of dolphins patrol off-shore, leaping and splashing for the sheer joy of it.
Horseback riding vacation on Assateague Island
The horseback riding area is actually the 11-mile long OSV (over-sand vehicle) range, used by 4-wheelers. It runs most of the length of the Maryland side of the Seashore. The area is so vast that you rarely see or even hear the 4-wheelers, and when you do, the drivers are extremely co-operative and polite.
Riders unload the horses in a designated parking lot and walk unmounted up the dunes to the beach. We often take young and inexperienced horses to the beach with an “old hand” and walk unmounted for a while as the youngsters get used to the alien sights, sounds, and sand. Mounting can be a challenge if you need a mounting block like I do with my big Dutch Warmblood. I usually find a picnic table or get a leg up from someone with a shorter horse.
Most of the footing is moderate-to-deep sand, lending itself to a casual walk. Closer to the water, it’s firm enough to trot or even for a short canter. If your horse is happy in the water, the footing is firm and safe for that gallop through the waves, although even in May, the water is cold!
Wild ponies of Assateague
As famous as the “wild” ponies are, you rarely encounter them. They seem content to stay in the brush and marshes, which are off-limits to trail riders. When they do show up on the beach or in the parking lots, they largely ignore their domesticated cousins. Our horses, on the other hand, get a bit up when a stranger strolls around their parked trailers. There are no problems with mares in season being stalked by pony stallions. The boys seem happy with their “wild girl” harems.
Assateague Island National Seashore
As part of the National Park system, Assateague Island National Seashore charges a user fee. It’s $15/day per vehicle; $30/year. You do not have to show a Coggins or health papers. The Seashore is adjacent to Maryland’s Assateague State Park, but they are two different entities, and horses are not allowed in the Park. To reach the Seashore, turn right after crossing the bridge onto the island. The road is very well-marked. You are asked to check in at the ranger station adjacent to the entrance. There is no water, so you’ll have to bring your own.
Most visitors are day-trippers, but there is a horse camping area. Reservations are required, and there are some regulations about corralling and feeding. Unfortunately, there are no farms offering overnight stabling in the immediate area. Those that do are an hour or so from the beach. Check www.horsetrip.com to find them.
Horseback riding on Virginia side via Chincoteague
Riding is also allowed on the Virginia side of the Seashore. You get there from the town of Chincoteague, about 50 miles south by road. It has different access points, trails, regulations, and seasons. (The two areas are separated by a fence in order to keep the two herds of “wild” ponies from coming into contact. The Maryland herd is completely feral and gets no vaccinations and only minimal vet care, while the Virginia herd receives shots and regular veterinary attention. That’s because the Virginia herd is the “Chincoteague” ponies which are auctioned off every July. )
If You Go:
For information about horseback riding at Assateague Island National Seashore, www.nps.gov/asis/.
For reservations or more information about horse camping call 410-641-3030.
For information about Virginia riding, go to: http://1.usa.gov/Yqb4rY.
Fran Severn is a freelance travel writer at Striped Pot. Follow Fran on Twitter and follow Nancy D. Brown on Twitter at Ridinghorseback. Top photo courtesy of Leslie Passano. Middle photo courtesy of Kellie Watson. Wild horses photo courtesy of National Park Service website.