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Seeing the Ponies

It may come as quite a surprise to learn that finding and viewing the famed wild horses takes almost no effort, especially on the Maryland side of the island, where the ponies have free reign. In fact, you'll probably have to stop for a few begging ponies along the side of the road as you enter. (For your own safety, that of the ponies, and that of your car, roll up your windows and do not feed them.) When you're camping, you may hear a pack of horses stroll by your tent in the middle of the night or see the telltale signs in the morning. For a more picturesque setting, stop by the beach in the evening after the crowds have left when the ponies roam the beach. Tip: Visitors have a free chance to take a drive and pull over to watch the ponies or deer along 2 miles of Bayberry Drive between the state and national park entrances. Bikers are welcome, too.

In Virginia, the ponies are less accessible; you can generally see them -- often in the distance -- along the paved road called the Wildlife Tour, in the fenced marshes south of Beach Road, and from the observation platform on the Woodland Trail.

The annual Pony Penning and Auction, a unique exercise in population control, is held on Chincoteague Island, a barrier island adjoining Assateague, on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. The Chincoteague "cowboys" round up the Virginia herd on Wednesday, and thousands of spectators watch as the horses swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, where the foals are auctioned off the next day. Campsites and hotel rooms (only available on Chincoteague and the mainland) fill up fast, so reserve well in advance. If you're staying in Ocean City, get up before dawn and drive the 60 miles to Chincoteague. You'll make it in time for the pony swim and be back in O.C. for dinner.

Although it's exciting to see the ponies swim across the channel, be aware that tens of thousands of people come to witness the annual event. You may only see the ponies as tiny dots as you wait along the shore shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of new friends. Traffic on the small island is almost too much to handle.

Don't Horse Around with the Ponies -- When you see the horses, remember: They are wild. Do not be fooled by their gentle appearance and willingness to approach you and your car looking for handouts. The ponies are prone to unpredictable behavior -- and they will bite and kick -- so do not attempt to feed or pet them. Also, please drive carefully; at least one pony a year is hit and killed by a car.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.