One hundred and twenty Assateague ponies live atop Virginia's 4,500 foot mountain area near Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. They have been planted there by the park service to protect the area from forest fires. They do this by grazing on the undergrowth along the mile-high ridgeline.
There were forty of these weathered and feral ponies originally released in 1975 on the Grayson Highlands, which is a part of the historic Appalachian Trail. Slightly larger than the Shetland pony, standing about half the height of an average human, these equine creatures do the clean up job for the park service. They do this by keeping the environmentally damaging hawthorn in check. They were chosen especially because of their short legs and substantial, hardy bodies. These type animals are more at home in this type of mountainous area.
The Assateague horse is also known as the Chincoteague pony. They are named after the Assateague Island with parts in Virginia and Maryland. They are well known because of a series of books about Misty of Chincoteague written by Marguerite Henry. They are found in pinto and solid colors. There is a variation in their stature due to the poor habitat on the Island and other breeds that were introduced during their history.
The Grayson Highlands are a more rugged stretch of the Appalachian Trail. To glimpse the herd of Assateague ponies, you would need to hike in the summer months to the top or "crest zone" of the high country in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and keep your eyes open. In the winter, the ponies migrate to the areas lower in the park. They are accustomed to humans but you will want to avoid petting or trying to feed them because getting too close could result in a bite or even being kicked.
Forty of these majestic foragers are chosen each year in September for a adoption auction. They are first examined and tested to be sure they are healthy. This auction is part of the Grayson Highland Fall Fest and is held at 2pm on the Saturday following the fourth full week in the month of September. Proceeds go toward the sustaining of the pony herd and some local charities. The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association is a local citizen group that manages the herd.