Assateague Island Welcomes Surprise Foal

Assateague Island Welcomes Surprise Foal
The second foal born on Assateague Island this year is pictured next to her mother, who is known as Gokey Go Bones. Photo by Assateague Island National Seashore

ASSATEAGUE — Local residents and visitors to Assateague got an early surprise Christmas gift last week when a new foal was born on the barrier island.
The new foal, temporarily known by its alpha-numeric name N2BHS-AL, made her first appearance last Wednesday and was likely around 24 hours old when she was first spotted.
In the mid-1970s, the National Park Service began naming new foals in the Assateague herd with an alpha-numeric code to help track the lineage and ancestry of the wild horses and identify to which sub-herd they belong and the areas they frequent on the island.
The new foal was birthed by N2BHS-A, more commonly known now as Gokey Go Bones. Although Gokey Go Bones was often seen with N2BHSX, or Jester, when she became pregnant, the color of the new foal suggests the sire is likely N9BM-E, or Yankee.
Assateague Island National Seashore Science Communicator Kelly Taylor said this week the birth of the new foal was a pleasant pre-holiday surprise on the island. It was just the second foal born on the island in 2013, the first coming in May. Taylor said the size of the herd of wild horses on Assateague now stands at 101.
“We really weren’t expecting this foal because we didn’t know Gokey was pregnant,” she said. “When we initially did pregnancy testing on the horses, she didn’t show up as being pregnant. We actually collect their feces and test for hormones that reveal if any of the horses are pregnant. It’s similar to a human pregnancy test. Because they carry a foal for about 11 and a half months, she might not have been showing the changes when we tested her.”
The new foal was born mid-week last week when frigid temperatures dominated the local forecast. Nonetheless, the new foal is being protected by Gokey and the band she travels with and is thriving thus far.
“We’re keeping an eye on her,” said Taylor. “She’s out there with her mother and the rest of the band. She should be fine. She was born into a large band, which means that there are many horses looking out for her. It is the nature of social animals to protect each other, so the horses will crowd around the foal to block the wind and keep her warm. Her dam appears to be healthy, so the foal will have plenty of high quality milk.”
Taylor said a common misconception is for the public to refer to new foals and all of the other animals that make up the herd on the Maryland side of Assateague as ponies, but they are technically just referred to as horses and always have been. She said there is a scientific distinction between ponies and horses and genetic testing has revealed the Assateague herd is clearly made up of the latter. Similarly, Taylor said the mothers are referred to as dams, while the fathers are referred to as sires.
“People often refer to our horses, particularly the new foals as ponies, but scientifically that is not accurate,” she said. “The differences are subtle, but our horses are just that, horses, and there are no ponies on Assateague. It’s a little complicated, but it has to do with the size of the animal. It doesn’t help that we have things like our ‘pony patrol,’ for example, which contributes to the confusion, but they are actually small horses.”
On the Virginia side, for decades the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company has held its annual Pony Penning and Auction, but those animals are also horses and not ponies. Taylor said the fire company has attempted to have their herd designated as ponies, but the idea has not gained any traction.
Meanwhile, the new foal born last week brings the size of the herd to 101, which is just about at the target range of 80 to 100. With just two foals birthed this year, the number came in lower than the statistical average. While three to five foals are birthed in a typical year, an in-kind number drop off due to old age, illness or other natural or man-made factors. The mortality rate is around 3 to 5 percent, meaning three to five out of 100 are lost each year to attrition, which coincides with the three to five new foals birthed in a typical year.
In the interest of managing the size of the herd, which, if left unchecked would overtake the barrier island and gobble up the resources the wild ponies need to survive, the National Park Service several years ago began a contraceptive program for the mares in the herd. The mares are injected with a non-invasive contraceptive to prevent multiple births in an effort to maintain and ultimately shrink the size of the herd to its manageable threshold. In the interest of maintaining the gene pool of the famous wild ponies, believed to be descendants of domesticated horses placed on the island 300 years ago, each mare is allowed to birth one foal before being put on the contraceptive program.
While local residents and visitors are encouraged to enjoy the wild horses and other wildlife on Assateague, the National Park Service is urging them to keep a safe distance from all of the horses and especially the new foal.
“If you venture out to the seashore to sneak a peek at the newest addition, please respect that fact that giving birth and being born are stressful events,” said Taylor. “As always, give the horses plenty of space and view them from at least a bus length away.”