Charles Fergus
June 01, 1984

Ron Keiper throws his orange peel into the surf and motions me to do the same. He crouches and dips his hands in the water. "Wash the smell off," he hisses.

Dark shapes bob toward us down the beach. On the left, dunes rise against a blue-black sky. To the right, pale waves break and vanish on the sand. Keiper and I straighten and watch the shapes. Soon I can make out pointed ears, straight backs, and barrel chests.

"It's the herd from the causeway," he says.

The horses stop.

"That's a nice baby you have there." Keiper speaks rapidly. "What are you guys doing here tonight, huh?"

The horses move closer, and Keiper slips to one side. They lower their heads and walk past, heading south. We follow.

A warm spring breeze blows salt spray in our faces; stars shine through a haze tinted yellow by lights from the campground beyond the dunes. The horses stop. One animal leaves the group and moves toward a lone shape in the middle of the beach. A shrill squeal cuts the air, then a sudden pounding. Keiper backs quickly into the surf, and I do the same. A second later the herd gallops past, snorting, kicking sand, black heads bobbing. The hoofbeats vanish. The beach is empty except for a single horse outlined on a dune.

Keiper's office is at the Mont Alto Campus of Penn State. From the papers layering his desk, a skull rises. Its long lower jaw ends in upturned teeth. Deep eye sockets indent the shiny, yellow surface. Perched on the crown is a yellow Massey-Ferguson baseball cap.

"Mont Alto has the biggest collection of Assateague Island pony skulls in the world," Keiper said. "We have about 10." He touched the skull with a pencil. "This is my favorite horse, Rose. She was about 27 when she died. Look at her teeth, see how worn and rounded they are? It's the grass they eat—saltmarsh cordgrass. Real gritty stuff.

"Rose here was the dominant mare in a herd on the northern end of the island. She produced my Kennedy family. Three of her sons are herd stallions today.

"There's John, born in '73 and started his first herd in '77. Before that, he was in a bachelor herd with his brother Bobby and another young male. John has done very well. Last year his herd totaled 16 animals, including six mature mares.

"Bobby was born in '74. He started his herd in '78, and now he's got three mares and five other horses. Bobby's herd has become a big pain. They're garbage ponies. They actually like human food—I've seen them eating potato chips, bread, watermelon rinds, oranges. They've bitten and kicked people. Bobby may wind up in trouble for that.

"Teddy, a third brother, took over L herd after its stallion died. That was in 1980. Teddy had four mares last year."

Keiper leaned back in his chair toward a wall plastered with magazine photographs of wild animals. His graying beard covers a mildly retreating chin. His hair, receding in front, overhangs his collar in back. His right eye stares away at an oblique angle from behind dark-lensed glasses.

Keiper first went to Assateague in 1971. He vacationed on the island, and the ponies intrigued him. At the time, he was a new professor of biology studying caged canaries and cryptic moths. He began reading about equids—horses, zebras, and wild asses—living in Mexico, Mongolia, and Australia. He wondered how ponies on a barrier island would fit into the picture.

Assateague ponies have an obscure origin. They may descend from animals washed ashore from a Spanish ship wrecked in the 1600s; they may come from stock grazed on the island by 17th-century English colonists. The Baltimore Maritime Museum holds a 19th-century Spanish document telling how, in 1820, a boat carrying ponies—blinded for work in South American mines—wrecked off Assateague. A surveyor's document from 1826 corroborates the accident: "We have thus far in our travels made a count of forty-five small horses no larger than a large hound, many appear to be blind. . . . Their origin is a mysterie and Doctor Purnell, who frequented the islands nine years ago, has no knowledge of them."

A typical Assateague pony stands 50 inches at the shoulder. Taller than a Shetland pony, it is about 6 inches shorter than a full-sized horse. Some observers speculate that the ponies' reduced size and compact body build are traits selected for by life on a windswept, sparsely vegetated island that experiences extremes of heat and cold.

In June 1975, under funding from the National Park Service, Keiper began a six-month sabbatical from Penn State. He had 200 identification sheets printed, each with a pony's outline. He moved to Assateague. He traveled the sand roads and beaches in a pickup truck, locating the herds, photographing each animal and coloring its pattern of markings on an identification sheet. On maps he noted where he found herds. He assigned each herd a letter, each pony a number. The stallion always got number 1—the stallion in N herd (a herd at the north end of the island), for instance, became N1. The lead mare in N herd became N2; her foal, born in 1976 (the first, or "A" year of systematic study), N2A. Sometimes he gave names. There was Rose and the Kennedy clan; Voodoo, an aging stallion who controlled the largest herd, and whose remains Keiper would find in the spring of 1977; the stallions Norris and Khartoum, bitter rivals; and a dominant mare Keiper named Irene, after his grandmother.

The Maryland-Virginia line splits Assateague roughly in half. There is a fence at the boundary. Horses north of the fence fall under National Park Service jurisdiction and are considered feral animals—descendents of animals that were once domesticated—and allowed to roam freely. South of the fence, the horses belong to the fire department of Chicoteague, Va., a town on smaller Chincoteague Island behind the barrier Assateague. The firemen graze the animals under permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Virginia portion of Assateague.

Keiper worked both ends of the island. He identified 17 herds, four on the Maryland section and 13 in Virginia. He learned the home area of each: the largest was 6miles long by a half a mile wide; the smallest, a half mile square. Most herds were commanded by stallions, but several were bachelor herds composed of males too young to compete in the breeding. Researchers in the American West and in Africa had also found bachelor groupings.

Each July, the Chincoteague Fire Department sponsors Pony Penning Days—two days when the Virginia herds are pushed to the southern end of the island and made to swim the quarter-mile channel to Chincoteague. Tens of thousands of tourists attend. The foals are auctioned, proceeds going to the fire department.

Keiper found that removal of foals had upset the age structure of the southern herds: too many old mares and stallions, too few mature mares in their breeding prime. Keiper worried that a bad winter would send the population crashing, bringing his studies to a halt. In 1977, he began limiting his research to the free-ranging herds on the north end of Assateague.

By choosing the less-manipulated herd, Keiper hoped also to reduce a stigma he had increasingly found attached to his work: As feral animals, the Assateague ponies are not worthy of serious research. The bias, he believes, kept some of his papers from being published in major journals. He could get small amounts of funding from the Park Service, but no big grant from an outside agency.

"I'm anxious to get down to the island this year," he said in his Mont Alto office. "I've spent 5,000 hours watching ponies over the last nine years. Each year I go back and see whose herd is intact, who's got a new foal, who didn't make it through the winter. I know who lives where on the island, and how the horses are related to each other. I've done the basic work.

"Assateague is a laboratory where we can study the natural behavior of horses very conveniently. I think we can make good comparisons between Assateague ponies and horses in the West or anyplace else."

The morning after our brush with the horses on the beach, Ron Keiper is walking north. He carries a knapsack and binoculars and wears the yellow Massey-Ferguson baseball cap.

He plans a reunion with M herd, a small band inhabiting the northern tip of Assateague. Of all the herds, M is the wildest and least affected by human contact. With Keiper are three young women. One, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, had worked for him in the past as a volunteer, monitoring pony activity. Her friends are undergraduates interested in the horses.

We walk above the swashface on sand soaked and compacted by the outgoing tide. Shells roll in the breakers. A hundred yards offshore, dolphins break the surface, dark and shining, with backswept fins, heading north in twos and threes. Every few minutes we come upon a horseshoe crab stranded by the tide. The crabs have plowed trails in the wet sand, curving back toward to sea. A few, still alive, wave spiked tails. Keiper picks these up and tosses them lightly beyond the breakers. "I figure they'll remember." He grins. "If a shark attacks me some day, all the horseshoe crabs will swim over and save me."

Keiper tells the women about our nighttime encounter with the ponies. "A herd came down the beach. I think it ran into a young stallion with a mare and a foal—I saw them hanging around the campground yesterday, and was surprised that a stallion that young had a mare. The two stallions fought, and I think the herd stallion stole the mare."

According to Keiper, stallions on Assateague spend less time fighting than do those in plains or mountain environments. On a long, narrow barrier island, a stallion must worry about rivals approaching from only two directions.

Stallions defend mares, not territories. When a rival appears, a stallion drives his own mares back, using a behavior Keiper calls "snaking": He lowers his neck and head parallel to the ground, weaves them back and forth, and ranges in front of the herd, using his body to force the mares back. Then he charges his rival, who may be a stallion from another herd or a young stallion trying to build a herd of his own. The combatants circle each other rapidly. They stamp their feet. One defecates; the other defecates on top of the pile. They squeal—a high, frantic sound. "A lot of fighting is ritualized gestures and not actual violence," Keiper says. "If the stallions can't establish dominance through posturing, they fight. They lash out with their forefeet, rear up to kick, and they bite." Most fights last five minutes or less, but Keiper watched one for 48 minutes; the stallions fought, rested, and fought again like boxers going rounds.

Except when a rival threatens, a stallion does not normally direct herd movement. Usually a lead mare moves the herd to waterholes, new grazing areas, or evening rest sites; sometimes the stallion must run to catch up. In 1977 and 1978, Keiper and Katherine Houpt of Cornell watched three herds closely. They concluded that stallions were neither the most dominant nor the most aggressive animals in their herds and were, in fact, subordinate to some mares.

"I wonder now if we designed that study properly," Keiper says. "We counted the number of aggressive acts between adult horses—shouldering another animal aside, threatening to bite, biting, threatening to kick, kicking. The thing we didn't consider is the distance an animal keeps between itself and its nearest neighbor. Often a stallion stays off by himself. When he's got that bubble of space around him, he doesn't have to be aggressive. There's no question that some mares rank high in the dominance hierarchy, but the stallion may be more dominant than we concluded."

Keiper climbs a dune and scans the marsh through his binoculars. No horses. We start walking again. Willets flash white underwings as they fly from the dunes, and terns wheel overhead. We find M herd at the end of the island, white and brown dots against a yellow-green expanse. Beyond, across a quarter-mile inlet, rises Ocean City, Md., crowded with motels, fast-food restaurants, giant billboards, condominiums.

M herd numbers 11 animals, down from 18 in 1976. The stallion, Mort, an auburn horse with a dark-reddish mane, stands at the edge of the group. The other horses are various shades of brown, many with large white patches. Long-legged foals romp and bite at each others' manes. One foal nurses: another seeks without success to mount a yearling, distinguishable from the adults by its longer, thicker coat. Keiper leads us into the marsh, a grass-scattered mat of green and black mud. The ponies lift their heads. They shuffle and shake their manes; several urinate. When we stop, they lower their heads again, and the sounds of tearing grass and grinding teeth reach across the flat.

Barrier island ponies eat three types of grass, Keiper explains. The main one is salt marsh cordgrass, growing in low, damp parts of the marsh. Salty, low in nutrients, and tough to digest, it gives the ponies their characteristic swollen bellies. A second grass, salt-meadow cordgrass, covers slight hummocks in the marsh. American beachgrass, the ponies' main winter fare, grows in the zone just behind the beach.

Beachgrass is critical to formation of dunes, the naturally occurring mounds of sand that protect a barrier island from storm tides. To see if pony grazing was harming the dunegrass, Keiper fenced off plots for a year and compared them with adjacent, grazed vegetation. He found no difference. In 1979, Keiper and Stan Zervanos, a biologist at Penn State's Berks campus, determined that the Maryland half of the island can support 150 ponies and that a larger number will damage the vegetation. Since 1976, when Keiper began monitoring the population, it has risen from 45 to about 100 ponies.

The three students fan out around the herd. One unfolds a collapsible stool and sits, clamping her wristwatch to a clipboard. Over the next several hours, she will construct a time budget, a record of what every animal is doing every minute: resting, walking, playing, grooming, eating, drinking.

Keiper and I continue north. The evening before, from the docks of West Ocean City, we had spotted a pony on the tip of the island, standing alone, immobile, its head drooping. Keiper thought it might be a young stallion recently driven out of M herd. If so, he guessed that the horse had been bitten, perhaps severely.

Bites are given freely in equine society. Deep shoulder bites are common, and one Assateague horse has lost an ear. Mares bite each other; a stallion may bite his mares, or a rival stallion, and he will be especially harsh on a young stallion in his own band as it nears maturity, eventually driving away this potential rival. In Nevada's Granite Range, Joel Berger, a frequent collaborator with Keiper, found that when a new stallion takes over a herd he often shows extra aggression toward the male foals sired by the horse he replaced. (Recently, Berger startled the scientific community with an observation that Keiper has never made on Assateague: New herd stallions chase down the mares and forcibly mate with them—Berger called it "rape"—causing the pregnant ones to abort. These mares quickly become sexually receptive again and the stallion impregnates them, furthering his own genes.)

"This guy on the tip could be in bad shape," Keiper says. "The feed is poor, and he may be having trouble finding water. What he'd like to do is join with other young males kicked out of other herds, and hang around together in a bachelor band. But he's penned in up here. Every time he comes down the island he's subject to the stallion's wrath."

Keiper explains that 2-year-old females also normally leave the herd. The stallion—their sire—does not drive the young mares off, but neither does he try to keep them. "Of the mares that leave and join other herds, 60 percent foal the next year," Keiper says. "Of the few that stay, only about 25 percent foal. I don't know whether a father-daughter pairing is less fertile, or if the two aren't as likely to mate. In any case, there's bound to be more in-breeding on a barrier island than on open range. A good study would be to link in-breeding with foal mortality."

After much searching, we find a horse in a muddy clearing among the bayberry bushes. A young male with a creamy coat, he has no bad bites. Keiper speaks to him—he watches us, chewing slowly, then lowers his head and slips into the thicket.

Mosquitoes drive us to the ocean beach, where a stiff breeze clears the air. Keiper explains the role insects play in the horses' lives. "Mosquitoes don't seem to bother the ponies—maybe their hide is too thick. I've seen horses with thousands of mosquitoes on their backs, and they acted like nothing was bothering them. But two greenhead flies send a horse running." Horseflies, stable flies, greenhead flies, and deerflies (known locally as "meat-ax flies") hector the animals, intent on drawing blood. The horses' defense Keiper calls "circling." The ponies stand in a circle, heads toward the middle. One by one, each leaves his place and runs around the circle, using the other ponies' bodies and swishing tails to brush off flies. "Sometimes the flies drive the horses out of the marsh and onto open beach or into the bay. It's nothing to see horses standing in the bay from 9 in the morning to 8 at night."

He has noted more deaths following bad insect years. "To maintain weight, horses need food with 10 to 13 percent protein. In winter the grass is 8 or 9 percent, so the ponies have to draw on their fat reserves. During summers when the bugs are bad, the ponies can't spend as much time grazing, can't put on as much fat—then, in the winter, I think that kills some of them.

"As far as I can tell," Keiper says, "the animals the ponies interact with most are people, each other, the insects, and cattle egrets." Cattle egrets are white, heron-like birds with yellow feet. They eat insects, snapping up bugs that the ponies disturb. An egret feeding next to a pony, Keiper observed, captures three times as many insects as an egret by itself. The ponies like egrets because the birds pick flies off their hides. "The cattle egret is an African species spreading through the New World," Keiper says. "It didn't show up on Assateague until about 30 years ago. I'd give a lot to have seen the look on the pony's face when the first egret came along and landed on its back."

The Park Service and the state of Maryland administer a large campground on northern Assateague. Two herds, J and K, frequent the camp. Farther south, between the campground and the Maryland-Virginia line, are T, R, L, and N herds. Including M and O herds, north of the campground, eight herds roam the Maryland portion of Assateague.

A ninth herd, which Keiper has yet to name, seems to have formed in the campground area. The herd has coalesced around stallion M17C, the first foal born in J herd, in 1978. Not only had J's stallion, John, tolerated the male foal, he had permitted it to remain in the herd for four years; for this unusual passivity John paid a price: M17C made off with part of his herd. We find the new herd, including three breeding mares and three foals, knocking lids off garbage cans next to a concession stand.

"Looks like this guy won the battle last night," Keiper says. "There's the mare and foal that were hanging around camp yesterday with that young stallion."

Keiper grins. "I think I'll name this stallion after you," he says. "I'll call him Charlie."

Keiper wants to find J herd, so we drive south along the edge of the campground. At each camping area we turn onto an asphalt loop and circle past Winnebagos, umbrella tents, striped awnings, and pickup trucks with pop-up campers, all deployed around a big bathhouse on stilts. We find J herd grazing beside the dune. Keiper parks and gets out. "Hello, John," he says.

The horse is stocky, with blond forelocks and a strawberry roan coat. He eyes Keiper, and Keiper eyes him. "John is unpredictable," Keiper says. "He is reputed to have reached through a car window and bitten the driver on the shoulder—27 stitches. Actually, it's rare for a pony to attack anybody. The way people get hurt is by feeding the ponies—two ponies each want the same apple, and if a hand's in the way, it gets bitten. Sometimes people are knocked over by mares being run by stallions, but I've never been hurt. When I see something happening, I move out of the way."

After Keiper takes notes on new foals, we get back in the car and drive further into the campground. "There's Bobby's herd." Keiper parks in a vacant campsite and walks among the horses. He shows me the stallion, a stocky pinto; he rejoices to find a pinto foal, a long-legged female with a white blotch on her forehead that will make future identification easy.

Bobby moves behind the foal's mother. He sniffs her vagina, raising his head high and curling his upper lip to flare his nostrils. "That's called flehmen," Keiper says. "The action draws scents back to an olfactory center at the end of the nasal passages. He's checking to see if the mare's in heat."

Bobby lowers his head and ambles off. He moves between two tents, where he tears the top off a clump of short, brown grass. Three tents over, a boy and a girl in bathing suits throw bread crusts to a mare.

"Say a family comes along and takes this campsite," Keiper says. "They open up the back of their station wagon and start setting up their tent. If Bobby smelled food, he might race down off the dune and steal it. Anybody in his way could get hurt.

"Surprisingly, the people don't mind. My wife and I handed out a questionnaire in 1977, and we found that most people had a good knowledge of natural pony behavior, and most felt that even garbage ponies shouldn't be kept out of the campground. Almost nobody through troublesome ponies ought to be removed or killed, although the Park Service is keeping that option open."

The sea breeze ruffles Keiper's hair. "I've done some of my most important work with this herd," he says. "When I started working on horses, nobody had ever done any night studies. The herds out West—you can't get close to them, and they've got an unlimited number of escape routes. Here, the animals can't get away because the island's too narrow. Besides, they're accustomed to humans. I can stand 20 feet away and not affect a herd's behavior. A flashlight doesn't bother them if you just click it on for a second, time enough to tell what they're doing.

"I found that right after sunset, the herds move to waterholes. At first they walk; when they get closer, they run—just like kids on the way home after school. Some nights I would lose them, but I'd just head for the nearest waterhole and there they'd be.

"After drinking, they generally graze for a while. As the night goes on, they graze less and rest more, in stands of pine and oak on the highest parts of the island, and on the dunes and the beach. Sometimes they rest standing up, sometimes lying down. The younger ponies lie down more. A second grazing period begins about 4 a.m. and continues until after sunrise.

"One night I followed a band onto the dunes," Keiper says. "The moon was full, and the ocean sparkled. The ponies knew I was there, I was right in among them, and they went to sleep. I felt like going to sleep with them, but I didn't want to miss anything. It was a real high point.

"There were some less than ideal moments, too. One night I was following Bobby's band. They moved into a campground and went around poking their heads into tents, looking for food. I had to stand there taking notes. People were shouting. It was a little embarrassing."

Bobby noses at a garbage bin—its lid is held down by springs. He shuffles toward the next camping loop, north of the rest of the herd. He lifts his head and sniffs the breeze.

Keiper tugs the bill of his baseball cap. He raises his binoculars, lowers them. "Watch him," he says.

Bobby drops his head. He lays his ears back, turns, and angles toward a mare at the base of the dune. His head sways form side to side in a sinuous weave. The mare gives ground and trots south, her foal following. A yearling mare is slow to move; Bobby lunges at her, and she gallops off the dune, mane and tail streaming. On the asphalt a mare pauses and defecates. A young stallion walks over, straddles the droppings, and urinates on them.

Bobby runs up. The young male lowers his neck and twists his muzzle upward, curling his lips back to expose his teeth. "Champing," Keiper says. "A gesture of submission."

Bobby sets his shoulder against the male's side and pushes. The young horse veers off toward the mares. Ears twitching, staring up the island, Bobby drenches the pile of droppings with his own urine.

"He smells John," Keiper says. "Or maybe that new stallion Charlie is coming down the beach."

Last Updated June 01, 1984