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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Yurko

Visiting Assateague Island and Seeing the Wild Horses In Winter

Updated: Feb 6

While many of the businesses up north in Ocean City have closed for the season, Assateague Island remains open, which means it’s a great time to visit the island and in particular, see the wild horses.

The crowds are light, the bugs are gone, and the horses still roam freely throughout the park, grazing near the roads and hanging out in the parking lots. While you probably won’t see them dipping in the ocean as the water drops below 45 degrees, you can still occasionally catch a glimpse of the horses roaming the beach, especially on the OSV (Over Sand Vehicle) section of the park.

Tips for visiting Assateague in the winter:

  • Get an OSV pass or contact us for a tour! Majority of the horses have done their winter migration, traveling to their normal territories they spend most of year. Of the 80+ horses on the Maryland side, more than half are located on the OSV section of the park. This section requires extra permits, fees, equipment and a vehicle capable of driving on the beach. All our tours explore this part of the park, and with our knowledge of the horses and their territories, we do our best to find them on each trip.

  • Check the weather and wind forecast! Other than the cold temperatures, the wind forecast dictates what's really happening on the island. Check out the weather channel hourly forecast for Ocean City, MD to see when the winds are lightest during your stay. This will make walking on the beach, hiking or just hanging out the most pleasant. The horses might also be more active with the lighter wind speed and direction.

  • Get some rubber hiking boots! Since the primary source of food for the horses in winter is the salt marsh cordgrass, they will often be grazing in the marsh rather than on the beach or dunes. To access these areas, put on some knee high rubber boots and head out into the marsh! As of 2022, this is only possible on the OSV section or north of Assateague State Park, as visitors must remain on the hiking trails and paved areas in the developed area.

  • Drive around and keep driving, and walk the hiking trails! If you are only able to visit the developed area of the park, drive around multiple times as often the horses will emerge on your second or third trip. They are constantly on the move! Also check out the three hiking trails in the developed area.

What's the weather like this time of year on Assateague?

January and February are the two coldest months on Assateague Island with temperatures ranging from 28-49 degrees Fahrenheit. Average precipitation is 2.74” with humidity of 65%. Nor’Easters, large and powerful winter storms, sweep through Assateague during this time of year packing high winds, rain, and occasionally snow. Once they pass through, however, there is often a period of sunshine and West winds.

What is that fuzzy coat you see on the horses?

At the height of the winter, the Assateague horses have developed a winter coat, but did you know it’s not actually caused by the colder temperatures, but the shorter days and less sunlight?

Some horses start to develop their winter coats as early as August or September as the daylight diminishes. The reduction of light causes an increase in the hormone melatonin, triggering a horse’s coat to start growing and giving it that thicker or fuzzy look. At the end of the winter, when the days start to lengthen, the horse’s melatonin levels will decrease, prompting them to shed the coat they developed for the winter.

Horses in the north with shorter days and less sunlight produce more melatonin, which in theory they should develop a thicker coat. Horses south or closer to the equator have longer days of sunlight throughout their year, with less melatonin levels compared to the Assateague horses.

What other wildlife can we expect to see in the winter on Assateague?

Other than the horses, deer, seagulls, dolphins and other species that call Assateague Island or it’s coastal waters home year round, many animals pay a visit to the barrier island during this time of year. Some of these include seals, right whales, and migratory birds. In particular, you might catch a glimpse of a special goose called the brant, which spends its summers up north in Canada. Snowy Owls occasionally visit as well. Remember to ensure that you maintain a safe distance from all wildlife while visiting the park.

About Assateague Island Tours

Assateague Island Tours was created to share Assateague's beauty and provide a different experience for those visiting the barrier island. Our goal is to help you turn off your mind and truly enjoy your day while leaving the planning to us.

Throughout our years of traveling to Assateague Island and onto the OSV, we've seen countless people become refreshed and reenergized after visiting the island and experiencing all that it has to offer. It opens up a new perspective for those that visit, as many come from the city and are pleasantly surprised that a place like Assateague Island exists in Maryland. Being less than a three hour drive from three of the largest cities, Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and open year-round, the island offers an escape for those looking for a unique experience. Driving off road over sand is a special adventure many don't ever get to experience. Sharing a true Assateague experience immersed in nature and away from the crowds is our goal and what has driven us to create this experience.

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