The (Not So) Wild Ponies of Virginia’s Grayson Highlands

No, that’s not a wild pony. That’s Dozer! I see how you might make that mistake though…

Four years ago in mid-October, I spent a memorable weekend camping on Assateague Island with a group of friends whom had all met at Wyman Dell, the best dog park in Baltimore. The Assateague trip was my sendoff: I had finished my master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and a summer internship at EARTH magazine and was heading out West to spend the winter housesitting an off grid Earthship in New Mexico.

I’ve always said that the best way to cement lasting, meaningful friendships is to go camping together. A lot of people have come and gone from my life in my nomadic last four years, but I’m still in touch with the group from Assateague. Something about walking the beach, sleeping on the sand, watching sunrise over the Atlantic and fending off pesky wild ponies from our campsite together really bonds you to people for life!

Hiking the AT, wild pony up ahead!

Funny how the world works: four years later in mid-October, I found myself backpacking through the Highlands of Virginiawith one of those Assateague friends, once again in the midst of wild ponies! I didn’t even know Virginia had more than one herd of miniature mustangs!

Grayson Highlands Pony Herd! Grazing right along the Appalachian Trail.

In 1975, fifty hardy Assateague ponies were released in Virginia’s Grayson Highlands to graze the balds and keep the brush from taking over. You see, the balds aren’t natural; the Highland’s vast open hilltops were once heavily forested, but extensive logging in the late 1800’s cleared the land. Cattle ranching kept the balds open through the early 1900’s but when the cows left, the brush started growing back with a vengeance. The ponies thrived in the harsh high country and today, around 150 graze the scenic balds, keeping the brush at bay.

The Bald Hills of Grayson Highlands

My Little Ponies

Hiking a 20-mile loop on the Appalachian Trail through Mount Rogers Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park, we caught our first glimpse of the wild ponies off in the distance. We kept our voices low and watched them surreptitiously, thinking we were being treated to a rare glimpse of skittish wild animals.

As it turns out, the ponies are considered “wild” because they aren’t looked after – they find their own food, water and shelter and aside from a yearly round up and auction (this year it took place the last week in September) they are left alone to make their living on the balds.

Camera Curious “Wild” Pony

After years of handouts from hikers the ponies are anything but wild. We stumbled upon a herd grazing right on the Appalachian Trail and literally had to wade through them! What a bunch of pests! Adorable pests, but beggars nonetheless. We didn’t feed them but I did geek out a little, my childhood pony love rushing to resurface. What a sweet highlight of an awesome weekend on the Appalachian Trail!

Pony Love!

Love horses? Me too! Check out my previous posts Filly Lost & Found, Healing HorsesWilding Horses and All the Pretty Horses.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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9 Responses to The (Not So) Wild Ponies of Virginia’s Grayson Highlands

  1. Pingback: Hiking the AT: Glorious Grayson Highlands! « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  2. LizLong says:

    I live in the area and apparently need to take up hiking! That is the neatest thing ever. I love that they aren’t nervous around people. Great photos!

  3. Joni says:

    Goodness I know nothing of the world to be so dang old….didn’t even know we still had “wild” ponies roaming around. They are soooo cute.
    Take care,

  4. Great post! It makes me miss fall after living in the tropics for so many years.

  5. Pingback: A Jackpot Day at McAfee Knob « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  6. Pingback: Meet the wild ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park

  7. Barbara Steele says:

    According to “Wild Horse Dilemma”, Bonnie Gruenberg, 2015, the herd of 50 ponies released on Grayson Highlands were Shetland ponies.

  8. jmhauser says:

    Reblogged this on JM Hauser's Blog and commented:
    We will be heading to Grayson Highlands this weekend. Can’t wait to see the ponies!

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