SNOW HILL– Despite new safety initiatives, several park visitors continue to have concerns with Assateague Island’s horse management practices.
While Assateague Island National Seashore announced new efforts to ensure the safety of the park’s wild horses less than a week after a mare was hit by a car, some say those measures will do little to help. They believe the key to protecting the horses is enforcing the park’s rules and keeping humans away from the animals.
“The negative interactions only occur because people refuse to adhere to the rules,” said Rebecca Vriezelaar, an Ocean View resident who visits the park frequently.
On July 31, one of Assateague’s horses was hit by a car. While park staff confirmed the incident was under investigation and reported that the horse appeared to be doing well, Vriezelaar said this week the mare, who she identified as Lauren’s Laughter, was limping and clearly in pain.
“It hurts to watch her,” Vriezelaar said.
She initially shared news of the injured horse with The Dispatch after noticing the park hadn’t issued any information about the incident. The park did, however, announce changes to its horse management practices on Aug. 3. According to an announcement on the national seashore’s Facebook page, the park is now using a team of six horse management rangers with access to two UTVs (utility terrain vehicles) to ensure the safety of the park’s wild horses. The park also announced the establishment of “red zone” areas, which are high visitors use areas where negative human/horse interactions often occur.
“During the peak summer months, the horses will be proactively moved from red zone areas to prevent undesirable interactions from occurring,” the social media post read.
Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education for Assateague Island National Seashore, said the new initiatives represent great strides in the park’s horse management protocols. She said the additional staff, paired with the Pony Patrol volunteers and the implementation of the red zone program will reduce negative interactions.
“Red zone areas have been identified as high visitor use areas where frequent negative human/horse interactions occur,” Davis said. “In addition, these are areas where visitor use is designated, access is needed, facilities are provided, and there are risks to visitor safety when horses are present.”
That includes areas such as the lifeguard protected beach and restrooms, showers and parking area.
“This area is extremely busy during the summer, and visitors must utilize this area to swim with lifeguard protection and use nearby facilities,” she said. “Horses will be kept out of this area during the summer season on peak visitation days/times. However, horses would not be moved from red zone areas during less busy seasons. This is a new approach, so we are closely monitoring the effectiveness of this program and will adjust and adapt as needed.”
Vriezelaar and several other regular park visitors who are passionate about the horses believe the red zones are going to do more harm than good. They believe horses trying to get to the beach to get a reprieve from the heat and biting flies will be redirected back to the marsh area. That could push them back onto the road or result in bands being inadvertently split up.
“These horses are not living wild and free, rather they are being moved into undesirable locations to make room for the visitors, just when they are seeking comfort and relief from extreme heat and hurtful flies,” Vriezelaar said. “Whose island is this? It appears that the ponies are more of an inconvenience to the Park Service, instead of the unique treasure they are considered to be by thousands of people worldwide.”
Vriezelaar and others believe Assateague officials should look at the practices in place in Chincoteague. They believe it’s time for drastic changes at Assateague Island National Seashore to keep the animals safe. Suggestions they propose include limiting the areas of the beach people can use and adding fencing along Bayberry Drive to help limit the horses’ access to the road. While the park has traditionally treated the horses as wild animals, Vriezlaar says that needs to change if a horse is hit by a car.
“Either the ponies are not exposed to the possibility of vehicular strikes, or they must be vetted if they occur,” she said. “But you cannot expose the wild horses to elements which are not part of their natural environment, allow these to harm them and stand by and do nothing as they suffer, and at best euthanize them when the injury is determined to be fatal.”
Bobbie Smith of Frankford said the current philosophy resulted in horses suffering.
“I think it is foolish and ultimately inhumane to mix wild horses with peoples’ vehicles, their colic-causing food and trash, killer balloons and general non-compliance of park rules,” Smith said. “Horses suffer and die a result of the ‘Keep ’em Wild’ philosophy. Maybe it’s time to look at Chincoteague for a better model.”
Pennsylvania resident Stephanie Horning said she thought the park should provide veterinary care to injured horses like Laurens Laughter.
“Simply monitoring the ponies but to do nothing while they are in pain and suffering is inhumane and cruel,” she said.
While there are a variety of rules in place at Assateague that are meant to keep the horses safe, Vriezelaar says many visitors disregard them and there aren’t enough park employees to enforce them. She believes that any improper interaction, many of which occur in the evening after park staff are off duty, should result in a fine.
Davis, who noted that the park was established to protect the natural barrier island, said officials worked to safeguard the park and its natural resources while also providing visitor access. The park’s horses are not mentioned in its enabling legislation but have been managed by the park as a free-roaming wildlife population for decades.
“The National Park Service (NPS) has researched, documented, and managed the wild horse herd in the Maryland district since 1968,” she said. “This includes on-going monitoring, genetic studies, and a renowned contraceptive program that has resulted in the highly successful adaptive horse population management plan we have today.”
She said officials were “constantly admonished for a perceived lack of enforcement of rules” regarding visitors and horses. Over the years, Davis said officials had come to realize that people loved horses and didn’t fear them like they would a bear or bison. They can also be ignorant of rules or break them knowingly and in those cases, marketing efforts have a limited effect.
“What has worked is boots on the ground, talking to visitors, public education, correcting negative interactions, and moving horses when necessary,” Davis said. “Not every visitor horse interaction rises to the level of law enforcement involvement, and not every negative visitor horse interaction warrants a ticket. When law enforcement is needed, they are notified.”
Having spent years of their own enjoying Assateague’s wildlife and watching the horses, Vriezelaar, Smith and a number of others remain convinced that more could be done to protect the wild horses. They believe their input could help the park develop better equine management practices.
“We don’t have all the answers but wouldn’t it be great to sit down and consider other options,” Vriezelaar said, adding that protecting the horses was essential at Assateague. “This isn’t just a regular park. We have something that’s very special but also very fragile.”
Davis said that at a busy park like Assateague, compliance and respect of park rules and park staff was critical.
“Over 1.4 million people visit the Maryland district of Assateague Island,” she said. “While public service is always exposed to criticism, analysis, and reproach, lessons are learned, and improvements are implemented. National Park Service employees take their jobs very seriously, are dedicated to their chosen career, work hard to make a difference, and strive to provide a positive visitor experience.”