For many people, the only reason for going to Assateague Island is to see the Wild Ponies. If so, it could be a little disappointing for them, especially if they only spend a few hours on the island. A 20-minute video shown at the visitor center provides a good, if somewhat romanticized view, of the little ponies that have roamed the beaches, pine forest, and salt marsh of Assateague Island since the 1600s. There are two theories regarding the stout little ponies: one is that they arrived on Assateague's shores when a Spanish galleon ship, with a cargo of horses, sank offshore. The other is that they are remnants of the herds of early colonial settlers who grazed their horses on the Island. Apparently a Spanish ship wreck was discovered recently in the waters off Assateague which gives credence to the first theory.
Both the Maryland and Virginia sides of Assateague Island have wild ponies; each has a herd of about 160 and a fence at the state line keeps the two herds separated. They roam the island in bands of 5-10 ponies so you aren't going to see a lot of them all at once. I did see a group of 10 or so one day sauntering through the main parking lot on the beach side of the island. They were there long enough to stop traffic, then moved on down the road.
Although there are 30+ miles of beautiful white-sand beach, the part that is easily accessible to visitors is only about 5 miles long. Undoubtedly, the ponies roam the beaches too but I never saw any on the beach though they were grazing along the road on the beach side of the Island. I did see quite a few ponies on the bayside - in the marsh areas and in the campgrounds. My suspicion is that there were one or two bands of ponies that roamed those areas and I kept seeing the same horses over and over ;-)
These guys followed me around for quite awhile one day. I'd back off and they'd keep coming. Eventually they tired of the game and went off looking for better pastures.
The grass must have been pretty good alongside the marsh boardwalk. On this day there was a group of six of them. Three were on the boardwalk and the other three were off in the marsh. The ponies aren't very big. Short and stout is an apt description. In the background there is a woman standing next to two ponies, she towers over them. The tallest ones that I saw were maybe 5 feet tall.
There are signs posted stating that you are not to feed, touch, or even approach the horses. I never saw anyone feed them but did see a few people touching and petting them. I didn't go searching for the ponies. If they were in the same area where I was I'd go see them but I really didn't get too close. They are considered to be wild animals but they are definitely not afraid of humans. The ponies are left on their own, to fend for themselves. They are not cared for or treated if they become sick. The only food they get is what they find for themselves: marsh and sand dune grasses, rosehips, bayberry twigs, persimmons and even poison ivy.