The Assateague and Chincoteague are two rare U.S. horse breeds, both of which are nearly identical in physical attributes and characteristics. They also inhabit the same island of Assateague off the coast of Virginia and Maryland, although each herd is divided by a fence separating the two states.
The Assateague and Chincoteague breeds are found in various colors, although they are often seen in pinto. Standing at about 12 to 14 hands high (48-56 inches, 114-142 centimeters), their legs are small yet strong. Their withers, meanwhile, are prominent and their ears and muzzles are small. These lightly-built breeds also have unique wide-spaced eyes.
Although accustomed to human activity, the Assateague and Chincoteague are independent breeds that usually run about their daily lives ignoring the presence of people.
The ecological balance among the rare Assateague and Chincoteague breeds is rigorously maintained. In fact, they live without any human aid. The coarse marsh cordgrass, which accounts for about 80 percent of their diet, is extremely salty. These increased sodium levels also cause the horses to have abnormally high fresh water intake.
There are various theories as to how the Assateague and the Chincoteague came to reside on on the island of Assateague off the Virginian and Maryland coast. One theory suggests that the breed is a descendant of the horses that were aboard a trade ship prior to the discovery of the New World. Once it became it shipwrecked, the horses that survived supposedly found refuge on the island and propagated there. These Spanish horses soon evolved into the Assateague and the Chincoteague. When the colonials came to the island, they found it occupied by the small horses. Another theory claimed that these horses were brought to and left on the island by pirates who roamed this particular coastal region.
Although neither theory seems probably, such wild stories are still told on the island.
In truth, the Assateague and Chincoteague breeds came to be where they are now because of importation by Virginia colonials. In 1649 fewer than 500 horses were left in the colony and so a concerted effort was made to bring more horses. By 1679, however, colonials began to have problems with the rapid growth of the imported horse population.
As a solution, the government put a stop to horse importation. Taxes were levied and the owners of the horses were required to create penned enclosures for their herd. In desperation, some of the breeders brought their stock to the Assateague Island.