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This multispecies ethnography investigates how free-roaming ponies and humans participate in the production of “pony wildness” on Assateague Island, a barrier island located off the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. The bordering practices of ponies intersect with the bordering practices of people to generate a relational conception of pony wildness that incorporates in people-pony relations a desire for intimacy with respect for autonomy, in a multifunctional landscape managed both as wilderness and as a beach tourism destination. This notion of pony wildness includes nonhuman charisma, fluidity, and managing human visitors. We conclude by discussing how the fluidity of pony wildness can help us think more imaginatively about other contexts in which communities of free-roaming nonhuman animals share space with human communities.
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©  , , |:./-
   () –
brill.com/soan
Bordering Processes and Pony Wildness
on Assateague Island
Jennifer L. Britton
Oce of University & Community Partnerships, Drexel University,
Philadelphia, PA, USA
Christian Hunold
Department of Politics, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, USA
hunoldc@drexel.edu
Abstract
This multispecies ethnography investigates how free-roaming ponies and humans par-
ticipate in the production of “pony wildness” on Assateague Island, a barrier island
located of the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. The bordering practices of ponies intersect
with the bordering practices of people to generate a relational conception of pony
wildness that incorporates in people-pony relations a desire for intimacy with respect
for autonomy, in a multifunctional landscape managed both as wilderness and as a
beach tourism destination. This notion of pony wildness includes nonhuman cha-
risma, uidity, and managing human visitors. We conclude by discussing how the
uidity of pony wildness can help us think more imaginatively about other con-
texts in which communities of free-roaming nonhuman animals share space with
human communities.
Keywords
human-animal relations – human-wildlife relations – wild horses – wildness –
multispecies ethnography
Assateague Island is a 37-mile-long barrier island of the Delmarva
Peninsula’s eastern coast facing the Atlantic Ocean. The island straddles the
Maryland-Virginia border, and about two-thirds of its territory is located in
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  
   () –
Maryland (Figure 1). It consists of pine forests, marshes, beaches, shrublands,
and dunes, with a couple of roads, a few park service and national wildlife ref-
uge administrative structures, several parking lots, campground facilities, and
snack shops being, today, the only signicant human-built infrastructure on
the island following its de-development upon designation as a national parks
property in the 1960s. Assateague Island National Seashore is a popular tour-
ism destination, drawing some 2.25 million visitors annually who enjoy activi-
ties like camping, shing, beach-going, kayaking, and wildlife viewing.
The island is also home to roughly 230 free-roaming ponies and, as such,
one of only a handful of places east of the Mississippi River inhabited by
wild horses. With a fence dividing the island at the state line, there are two
separate pony herds, subject to diferent ownership and management regimes.
The Virginia Chincoteague ponies, owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer
Fire Department, receive basic veterinary care (Gruenberg, 2015, p. 248) and
supplemental winter feeding. The ponies are accustomed to seasonal round-
ups during which they spend time in enclosures on refuge land. The Maryland
herd – the focus of our analysis – is managed as a wildlife population by the
National Park Service (). Exceptions to hands-of management include
Whether an equine is called a horse or a pony is a matter of body size. Thus, a pony is a small
horse, typically dened in North America as standing 14.2 hands tall (about 145 cm) at the
withers, or less. In that sense, the Assateague ponies are clearly ponies, likely reecting some
combination of the founding stock’s size and the nutrient-poor barrier island ecology’s con-
ferring a survival advantage on small body size.
In addition to Assateague Island, the most well-known wild horse and pony populations in
eastern North America inhabit Canada’s Sable Island, the Outer Banks of North Carolina,
Cumberland Island on the Georgia coast, and Virginia’s southern Appalachians.
  Map of Assateague Island.
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       
   () –
contraceptive treatment for the mares to control population growth (adminis-
tered with a dart gun by the  biologist) and occasional euthanasia in cases
of catastrophic injury. In early 2019, the Maryland pony herd included 76 indi-
viduals living in approximately 12 bands.
Ponies and people may encounter one another anywhere on the island:
by the side of the road, in the campgrounds, on hiking trails, in the bayside
marshes, or on the beach, particularly on the Maryland side of the island where
the ponies’ freedom of movement is unimpeded by fencing. The ponies’ status
as wildlife is enshrined in their legal status and celebrated in cultural under-
standings of them as wild nonhuman animals. Yet how is the ponies’ wild-
ness, vulnerable to the actions of overly intrusive human visitors, enacted and
reinforced in the absence of designated spatial zones of separation between
humans and wild animals? The island’s overlapping human-animal geogra-
phies present us with an opportunity to study how a relational conception of
wildness emerges from the interactions of ponies and people.
That communities of free-roaming nonhuman animals are closely entwined
with human communities is, for better or for worse, a dening ecological
feature of the present era (Braverman, 2015; Hinchlife & Whatmore, 2006;
Lorimer, 2015). In such settings, maintaining wildness is often a question of
preserving autonomy by limiting unwanted intimacy between species. To this
end, we argue, various borders and bordering processes (Power, 2009) that
operate on Assateague Island shore up spatial practices that enable ponies
and people, however precariously, to work out the terms of pony wildness. Our
relational account of pony wildness is indebted to Rutherford’s (2018) study
of coywolves, which seeks to rehabilitate ferality, widely feared as impure and
denounced as a contaminant of “pure” wildness, as a promising expression of
non-domesticity in the Anthropocene.
We cannot do justice to Rutherford’s (2018) nuanced account of coywolves
and humans as feral cotravelers here, but draw attention to her framing of
multispecies kinship as taking seriously the agency of nonhuman animals by
incorporating a desire for intimacy with respect for autonomy. Our multispe-
cies ethnography of pony wildness aims to explore similarly situated possibili-
ties for empowering participants in interspecies encounters to “pay attention
to one another in ways that are both intimate but also allow for autonomy”
(Rutherford, 2018, p. 219).
The following section introduces the theoretical framework and methodol-
ogy for data collection and analysis. We then show how borders and border-
ing processes sustain pony wildness in terms of nonhuman charisma, uidity,
and managing human visitors. We conclude by discussing how the uidity of
pony wildness can help us think more imaginatively about human-animal
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  
   () –
coexistence in other contexts in which communities of free-roaming nonhu-
man animals share space with human communities.
Framework and Methodology
Multispecies Ethnography: Borders and Bordering Processes
Pony wildness is enacted by various borders and bordering processes that
structure interspecies dynamics on Assateague Island. These borders take
several forms. There are physical boundaries like a fence at the state line, and
there are behavioral boundaries, such as a recommended pony-viewing dis-
tance visitors are expected to observe. The  regulations forbid touching
and feeding ponies, but visitors also enforce these rules in encounters with
one another. These bordering measures are meant to keep the Maryland and
Virginia herds physically separated, enforcing the ponies’ wildness, and pro-
tecting visitors’ safety. The measures are imperfect, however, and occasionally
do not work at all: some ponies cross the state line fence, some ponies break
into camping coolers, and some visitors cannot resist petting ponies. Despite
such commonplace failures, however, park regulations and visitor expecta-
tions continue to help enable the ponies to lead lives that are as wild as pos-
sible, given the island’s multiple functions as a nature preserve and popular
tourism destination.
Human-animal interactions on Assateague Island incorporate place-
specic meanings, local knowledge, and social-ecological dynamics (Aisher &
Damodoran, 2016). Recognizing the specicity of a place, it is important to
caution against falsely universalizing the experiences of its inhabitants. For
example, the Assateague ponies do not sufer the sort of systematic violence
visited upon many horses inhabiting public lands in the Mountain West, who
are periodically rounded up by helicopter and removed from the range by gov-
ernment agencies acting on behalf of ranchers and extractive industries.
Though ecologists worry about the impact of large grazers on the salt-
marshes and dunes of Atlantic barrier islands (Keiper, 1985), the ponies do not
have to contend with economically powerful stakeholders who despise them.
We also recognize that places are not made by humans alone (van Dooren
& Rose, 2012). According to Aisher and Damodaran (2016), “[P]laces contain
human and also nonhuman stories, meanings and signicance. A place is not
simply materially carved out of space… places are also remembered, experi-
enced, felt, discussed and imagined” (pp. 294, 299).
We do not know what the ponies might imagine about their lives on
the island. However, we combine ethnographic methods with insights
from ethology and ecology (Buller, 2015) to generate a rigorous account of
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       
   () –
interspecies interactions that does not romanticize animal behavior or deny
diference. Empathic approaches to knowing animals based on evolutionary
continuity among species are gaining ground in the study of social mammals
(de Waal, 2019; Fraser-Celin & Hovorka, 2019). One such approach – multispe-
cies ethnography (Kirksey & Helmreich, 2010; Ogden, Hill, & Tanita, 2013) – is
based, rst, upon the acceptance of mindful animal agency in human-
animal relations and, second, upon empathetic and interpretive observa-
tion of the manner in which exchanges between human and non-humans
are practiced and performed.
, 2015, p. 377
With a nonlinguistic species, careful observation and “listening” to nonver-
bal cues take the place of collecting and analyzing verbal and textual data
(Hodgetts & Lorimer, 2015; Meijer, 2019). Ponies communicate using visual
displays – physical movements, bodily postures, facial expressions – and
auditory signals (Wathan et al., 2016; Wathan & McComb, 2014). Moreover,
spatial practices – the ponies’ movements and travels across the island, their
interactions with other ponies and with people – reveal distinctive prefer-
ences, intentions, and emotions of individual ponies, many of which are leg-
ible to attentive human observers (Birke & Thompson, 2017; Dashper, 2017;
Notzke, 2016). In addition to nonverbal communication, moreover, horses’
social lives follow recognizable patterns based on species-specic behaviors
that establish family bonds, resolve conict, demonstrate empathy, maintain
trust, and generate reciprocity (Bekof & Pierce, 2009; Rowlands, 2012).
One of the authors of this study has 30 years of experience, many as a pro-
fessional, in riding, training, and caring for domestic horses as well as ofering
riding lessons. As a nature photographer, she has observed and photographed
wild horse herds in the U.S. and in Europe, in addition to the Assateague
Island ponies. She has been visiting Assateague Island to watch and photo-
graph the ponies since 2010, averaging eight to ten visits each year. Each visit
entails around eight hours a day looking for and then observing and photo-
graphing bands as they go about their daily activities. She recognizes individ-
ual ponies on sight, is familiar with their personalities, has detailed knowledge
of social relationships within and between bands, and has witnessed countless
interactions between ponies and human visitors. Her immersion for hundreds
of hours in naturalistic inquiry of this sort brings to our study a sensitivity to
the potential of research that is not wholly reliant upon the spoken or written
word to reveal subtle nonverbal interactions, both within and between species
(Hamilton & Taylor, 2017, pp. 91–92).
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  
   () –
Data Collection and Analysis: Qualitative Interviews
and Social Media Analysis
Aiming to understand how pony wildness is relationally produced, experi-
enced, and practically enacted from a variety of human and nonhuman per-
spectives compelled us to consider how to include the ponies in our methods
of data collection and analysis. As discussed earlier, attending to the ponies’
travels and movements – their spatial practices – was the strategy employed to
further that goal. Decentering the human experience does not imply, of course,
that human meaning-making was overlooked. We captured diverse human
perspectives on pony wildness through a combination of interpretive social
media analysis and qualitative interviews with island visitors.
Pony wildness is negotiated both in physical encounters between people
and ponies on Assateague Island and in virtual encounters on social media
where participants discuss actual encounters and observations, often illus-
trated by photographs or videos. Social media imagery that shows questionable
decision-making by visitors interacting with ponies often sparks discussions
in which participants debate the nature of pony wildness. For this study, we
reviewed material posted in two Facebook groups: one associated with the
nonprot organization Assateague Island Alliance (), and a discussion and
sharing group called Friends of Assateague Island National Seashore (,
not formally aliated with Assateague Island National Seashore or the ).
We identied 30 threads centered on people-pony interactions that took place
between February 2016 and November 2019. These threads featured exchanges
in which participants discussed the meaning of pony wildness as well as the
importance of “following the rules” for preserving pony wildness and protect-
ing the safety of both visitors and ponies.
Rather than a content analysis that presupposes the production of objec-
tive knowledge, we conducted an interpretive media analysis of Facebook
discussions prompted by encounters between ponies and people. We chose
this approach because we wanted to learn how people make sense of their
interactions with the ponies, rather than quantitatively and statistically assess-
ing patterns and themes (Berger, 2019). Furthermore, given our multispecies
ethnographic approach rooted in the perspective that humans co-construct
knowledge with each other and other animals, and following the approach of
empathic and interpretive observation of human-animal relations discussed
earlier, we endeavored to better understand the ways in which knowledge
about pony wildness is made and remade, rather than “objectively” produced
and disseminated by experts.
In addition, we interviewed ve women who regularly visit Assateague
Island to observe and photograph the ponies. These participants responded
to an invitation to take part in our study posted in the aforementioned
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       
   () –
Facebook groups. All were middle-class white women who were partnered
and ranged in age from approximately 35 to 65. All had longstanding familiar-
ity with domestic horses and/or the Assateague ponies. The interviews were
guided by ve talking points designed to elicit participants’ personal con-
nection to the ponies, memorable encounters they might have had, the sig-
nicance in their own experiences of the ponies as wild animals, comparisons
between the ponies and the island’s other wildlife, and comparisons between
the ponies and domestic horses. Interviews lasted 30 to 45 minutes and were
audio-recorded and transcribed.
Though we analyzed interview data and social media threads with a view
to generating a description of visitors’ perspectives on pony wildness that
emerged from the interview data, literature on human-horse interactions and
wild horse tourism had prompted us to anticipate certain themes, such as a
vernacular understanding of “wild” as “not-captive” and wild horse tourists’
indiference toward government designations of free-roaming horses as
“feral” or “invasive” (Bhattacharyya, Slocombe, & Murphy, 2011; Bhattacharyya
& Murphy, 2015; Birke & Thompson, 2017; Notzke, 2013, 2016; Rikoon, 2006).
Analysis began during data collection and transcription when we discussed
and recorded emerging themes. Sensitizing concepts from the literature (e.g.,
Lorimer’s concept of nonhuman charisma) were used to label some themes
while others emerged from the interview data during coding (e.g., conceptual-
izing pony wildness in contradistinction to domestic horse behavior).
Results and Discussion
Our multispecies ethnography of the performance of pony wildness on
Assateague Island reveals three main themes. The rst of these is that visitors’
emotional responses to the ponies’ wildness is tied up with their nonhuman
charisma. We rely on Lorimer’s (2015) seminal discussion of nonhuman cha-
risma to break down how perceptions of the ponies as wild evoke strong emo-
tional responses in visitors, including feelings of kinship with individuals.
Second, precisely what pony wildness entails – its content and meaning –
turns out to be remarkably exible. Surprisingly, habituation does not appear
to eliminate pony wildness, at least not entirely. Moreover, visitors tend to
reject the equation of “wild” with “native” that anchors scientic and govern-
mental understandings of free-roaming horses as “invasive” (and thus t for
removal). In fact, the ponies’ reverting to wildness following a historical pro-
cess of de-domestication is a valued feature. Finally, visitors are acutely aware
of and reect critically on humans’ responsibility to protect pony wildness as
the basis for organizing encounters on the island.
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  
   () –
Nonhuman Charisma
Lorimer’s tripartite, relational conception of nonhuman charisma has ecologi-
cal, aesthetic, and corporeal aspects (Lorimer, 2015). Ecological charisma refers
to the degree to which an organism may be detected by a human observer
using their senses, with minimal technological assistance (Lorimer, 2015, p. 40).
Given their large body size, ponies grazing in the bayside marshes or standing
on the beach seeking relief from biting insects may be easily detected. Visitors
arriving on the island are fairly likely to see members of N9BM-E Yankee’s
band grazing right along the entrance causeway. Tracking down ponies in the
island’s backcountry can be more dicult, however.
For example, visitors who prize encounters with N9BNZ Charcoal, the
herd’s only black stallion, often leave empty-handed because his band inhab-
its a remote part of the island covered by scrubland, forests, and dicult-
to-navigate marshes. In addition, ponies who seldom approach the island’s
developed areas tend to be somewhat standosh and require a cautious
approach. That nding “Charky” is somewhat challenging, however, is part of
the appeal of looking for him. One visitor compares the search for particularly
charismatic ponies to the thrill of the hunt:
You wanna go and look for Charcoal cause he’s the black stallion and
you wanna be the one to nd him, you know, that’s always exciting.
(Respondent 1)
This visitor’s experience of the excitement of the hunt presupposes the ponies’
capacity to evade detection by exercising their spatial autonomy. The animals
are not radio-collared, and dense vegetation afords manifold opportunities
for concealment. Visitors’ afective responses to the ponies go beyond the
mere thrill of detection, however. “Aesthetic and corporeal charisma,” Lorimer
(2015) explains, “describe the properties of organisms that generate emotional
responses among humans encountering them. Corporeal charisma is con-
cerned with feelings generated in proximal encounters in the eld” (p. 44).
Aesthetic charisma is determined by the degree to which an animal approxi-
mates “a broad set of anthropomorphic anatomical and behavioral norms”
(Lorimer, 2015, p. 50).
That the ponies engage in a wide range of observable social interactions –
for example, play-ghting among stallions, mares nursing foals, bandmates
expressing mutual care – is a big part of their draw for horse tourists. Band
membership is rarely permanent, and the reconguration of bands in the wake
Each pony in the Maryland herd has both an alphanumeric designation as well as a name
chosen by the public.
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       
   () –
of power struggles and shifting loyalties, described as a “soap opera” by one
visitor (Respondent 3), is a continual source of fascination:
And then [my husband] and I found, we were the rst ones who found
Dewey with his mares, right after he stole the mares from Foxy’s Gift.
Nobody else had seen them, so that was very exciting. (Respondent 1)
Encounters with foals are particularly highly valued. One visitor recounts her
unexpected discovery of N2BHS-J Shasta’s newborn N2BHS- Josie Rue in a
remote part of the island as a particularly joyful experience:
That was, like, the coolest thing ever because they just let me hang around
for an hour. It’s like you’re the only people on earth, a pack of ponies and
a new baby that no one had ever recorded. (Respondent 4)
Another visitor also dates the onset of her fascination with the ponies to an
encounter with a days-old foal:
One particular pony made me pay attention, and that was Adrianna’s
Yankee Prince. When he was born, I was on the island. He was about a
week or two old and insisted I had to pet him. He walked up to me ve
times, and he would just continue to come to me. I never really had a
favorite pony there or a favorite band, I never really followed them all that
much, but he, that day just wormed his way into my heart. (Respondent 2)
Some visitors have favorite ponies, whom they recognize and value as individ-
uals with distinctive personalities and temperaments. The caption accompa-
nying a photo of ponies T6M Precious and N6EM Maggie posted on Facebook
makes this clear:
The matriarchs of the island… at least that is how I view these girls when
I am able to run across them. Precious (left) and Maggie were both born
in 1988 but no specic day is listed that I have found, so I don’t know
which is the eldest. They are steady members of Bayberry’s band and
I always seek them out to check up on them. Such sweet old souls.
, November 12, 2019
The Maryland ponies carry two identiers: a “Keiper number” and a common
name. Devised by biologist Ronald Keiper (1985), the former identies each
pony with an alphanumeric designation representing a pony’s dam (mother)
and birth year. For example, the “S” in M6MS Rosie tells us that this mare was
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   
   () –
born in 1994, with the preceding numbers and letters indicating that her dam
was M6M Sea Breeze. Based on these designations, we know that Rosie’s son
M6MSY Bodacious Bob was born in 2000, and that her son M6MS-G Chestnut
was born in 2008. Keiper numbers follow matrilineal lines; therefore, the Keiper
number for the colt that Bodacious Bob sired in 2017, N9BM- Billy Bob, is
derived from the dam Giggles’s designation N9BM-J, not from Bodacious Bob’s.
The ponies’ sometimes whimsical names are bestowed by the winners of
naming auctions and raes administered by , the friends-of-the-park
nonprot aliated with . Foals and sometimes as-yet-unnamed adult
ponies are given names that auction or rae winners choose, with proceeds
serving as revenue for . Some winners choose names to memorialize a loved
one (Alexandria’s Angel), that reect their impressions of a pony’s appearance
or markings (Josie Rue), or that simply have special meaning to them. Recent
auctions for the rights to name especially popular foals have gone as high as
$3,500, while a rae ticket can be purchased for $10.
As one of us has shown elsewhere, naming free-roaming animals with no
history of domestication may reinforce a sense of kinship without diminishing
perceptions of their wildness (Hunold, 2017). Given horses’ history of domes-
tication and cultural entanglement with humans, the lines between wild and
domestic in human-horse interactions are always already somewhat fuzzy.
Thus, visitors who confuse the ponies with companion animals possibly do so
because they are ponies, not because they have names – though naming ponies
may invite overstepping boundaries in ways it does not with non-domesticated
species. One visitor surmises that naming ponies “personalizes them and
humanizes them to some extent,” fostering a sense of kinship, but she also
identies what she sees as the risks attached to naming:
If people think they have names like dogs or cats, then it’s okay if I pet
them or it’s okay if I feed them, if I get a little closer and try and make it
do something I want it to do. (Respondent 1)
Pony Wildness Between “Wild and Free” and Habituation
Human-pony boundaries on Assateague Island are neither absolute and
xed, nor bounded and demarcated by humans alone. The ponies engage in
their own spatial practices, practices that engage with human spatial prac-
tices in occasionally precarious ways (Collard, 2012, p. 37). For example, the
Maryland-Virginia state line is a political border the ponies are not meant
to cross. The somewhat ramshackle state line fence does not entirely prevent
illicit border crossings, though. Some ponies have learned that cables along
the section of fence extending into the surf hang suciently loose for them to
squeeze through (Figure 2), and that at least one section of wire over the dunes
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       
   () –
hangs at a height convenient for ducking under. Members of the Maryland
“state line band” routinely cross into Virginia and back again, and several
younger stallions have headed south in search of mares.
Other boundary crossings can be more troublesome. For example, some
ponies raid campsites in search of snacks, stick their heads inside open car
windows demanding handouts, and trample unattended beach blankets. Yet
even these habituated ponies are understood by human visitors to have the
potential to remain wild, provided human visitors act responsibly. Consider
this statement in a Facebook thread discussing an incident in which N2BHS-M
Susi Solé stole candy from a car:
Horses can get sick from human food. Those that learn to come up to the
road to beg for food are often hit and killed by cars. Visitors are kicked,
bitten, and knocked down every year as a direct result of getting too
close to the wild horses. Treating wild horses like tame animals takes
away the wildness that makes them special. Protect your family by
respecting theirs. Give the horses the space they need to be wild.
, March 14, 2019
Existing research on wild horses elsewhere suggests that this chimerical qual-
ity of equine wildness is not unique to the Assateague Island herd. Citing
Collard (2012), Notzke (2013) refers to wild horses as “queer messmates” using
Haraway’s (2008) terminology: transgressing both “wild” and “domestic” cat-
egories. Where humans and wild horses co-inhabit space, Notzke contends,
“wild horses are imbued with diferent meanings in competing rhetorics based
on diferent and competing philosophies of nature. But they are more than
  Mares crossing the state line fence.
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   
   () –
passive pawns in this discourse about nature and culture” (p. 393). Horses
occupy a unique place in culture as nonhuman agents because they are so inte-
gral to human history: “The wild horse is enhanced as well as compromised
in its otherness by having taken the leap into domestication and having then
reversed this move by regaining its wild heritage…. The horse’s prominence as
a ‘cultural being’ complicates its encounter as a wild animal” (p. 402).
Government land managers and extractive resource industry stakeholders
who oppose the presence of wild horses on public lands use the term “feral”
to indicate non-indigeneity and non-belonging. Additionally, “for many oppo-
nents of the notion of the free-roaming horse as wildlife, feral animals cannot
ever be ‘wild’ as they are forever tainted by their association with humans”
(see also Bhattacharyya, Slocombe, & Murphy, 2011, p. 621).
For example, the  views a wild horse population in the Missouri Ozarks
introduced there during the rst half of the 20th century as non-native eco-
system disruptors. For many local residents, in contrast, the horses are integral
to local history and regional culture, not least because their designation by
the government as disposable mirrors their own experiences as marginalized
human inhabitants of this region (Rikoon, 2006). For people defending these
horses, what mattered was that the horses were roaming free and in their own
way resisting the authorities’ science-based judgment that they did not belong
in the region. For Ozarks families, the horses’ wildness was all the more spe-
cial because they were descended from domesticated horses and were now
living on their own terms; that history did not detract from the wildness. This
understanding of their wildness was also place-specic, embedded in the
area’s history.
Notzke’s (2016) study of wild horse tourism showed that people who orga-
nize their tourism around seeing North America’s western wild horse herds
value them as part of a cultural frontier legacy – again, the “formerly domestic,
not ocially native” status falls into the plus column – and for their wild cha-
risma. There is a clear sense that wild horses belong where they live because of
an interwoven combination of their cultural signicance and charisma. Where
most wild horse populations are concerned, a looser denition of “wild” as
simply “not captive” suces to fulll popular expectations of wildness dened
as horses living self-determined lives:
Last month when Chestnut’s mares made a visit to the developed
area, I followed them when it appeared they were heading back north.
Eve was with them, and I watched her as she jubilantly ran on the beach….
[W]hat a wonderful sight. Wild and free! She ran like a lly!
, November 6, 2019
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       
   () –
People who visit wild horse tourism sites sufer from little of the ambiguity
that plagues wildlife managers about whether horses are supposed to be wild
or feral, and mostly accept that they belong in the landscape (Bhattacharyya,
Slocombe, & Murphy, 2011). Wildness dened as a departure from domesticity
is in fact part of the appeal. Visitors value encountering wild horses because
they do things that captive horses do not. Whereas most biologists who are
concerned with ecosystem integrity (Rikoon, 2006) and rangeland managers
(Bhattacharyya, Slocombe, & Murphy, 2011; Bhattacharyya & Murphy, 2015;
Notzke, 2013) who have to balance the existence of wild horses with the expec-
tations of cattle and sheep grazing lease-holders conceptualize wildness in
terms of native species, the “not captive” status is what matters for legitimate
wildness to people who are simply fond of wild horses.
The ideas about wildness held by the pony tourists we interviewed are con-
sistent with the “not captive” perspective on horse wildness discussed in the
literature. The origin story of the Assateague Island ponies is widely known
among horse tourists, at least insofar as it is understood that the ponies’
ancestors were once domesticated, whether as shipwreck survivors or colo-
nist livestock sent to the island for grazing and possibly tax-dodging purposes
(Gruenberg, 2015). Their present-day wildness is somewhat uid; they are
capable of accommodating a wide range of interspecies encounters. One visi-
tor, for example, characterizes the ponies as “wildish” in order to account for
their habituation to the presence of humans (Respondent 3).
Thus, visitors’ sense of pony wildness is shaped by the ponies’ lives on
Assateague Island, which for many ponies include close proximity to and inter-
actions with humans. That is, the ponies’ independence from human caretak-
ing; their ability to survive the barrier island’s harsh, nutrient-poor winters and
summers plagued by biting insects; and their longstanding inhabitation of the
island are the main signiers of wildness as manifested on Assateague Island.
That some ponies are (perhaps too) comfortable around people is lamented by
some visitors (Respondent 1), but habituation does not undo the ponies’ wild-
ness, given their evident capacity for self-determined spatial decision-making:
There’s plenty of land. You can hike for days and not see one horse
because they know where the hiding spots are, they know where they
need to go to survive, to get out of the weather, to get away from the
people. (Respondent 1)
Even the most habituated ponies, moreover, retain a degree of unpredict-
ability visitors believe exceeds that of domesticated horses (Respondent 2).
By all accounts, N6ELS-H Delegate’s Pride (nicknamed “Chip”) and N2BHS-M
Susi Solé are among the island’s most persistent and notorious raiders of
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   
   () –
human food (Respondents 2, 5). However, one visitor marvels at their ability
to beg for handouts in the campgrounds one minute and yet go back to graz-
ing in the marshes the next (Respondent 2). Another (Respondent 5) ventures
that the ponies difer from her domestic horses in that the latter would not
scavenge human food; thus, scavenging is understood in terms of the ponies’
search for resources in their nutrient-poor habitat and so does not necessarily
detract from their wildness (Respondent 1).
Managing People
Avoiding Physical Contact
In our interviews, threats to pony wildness were closely associated with trans-
gressive human behavior, such as putting a toddler on the back of a pony or
taking seles in close proximity. Consider the following incident, reported
on Facebook:
Don’t know if you can see in the picture, but these folks had a baby with
them that they were trying to shove up in the face of one of the horses to
get the baby to pet the horse. I tried, as nicely as I could, to say “Be careful.
They bite.” But they ignored me. As I drove away, I heard one of the men
say “They’re not really wild horses.
, November 29, 2017
Some interviewees blamed the decontextualized pony imagery popular on
social media for creating a misleading impression of the island as a pony-
petting zoo (Respondents 3, 5). However, one admitted that not petting an evi-
dently receptive pony called for much self-restraint, though she also noted the
importance of avoiding such physical contact and described incidents of help-
ing other visitors understand the rules and shooing ponies away from camp-
sites (Respondent 2).
Like many national parks, Assateague Island National Seashore has had to
contend with the age of seles, and with visitors who get too close to wildlife in
order to create images of themselves for social media. Many such visitors pre-
sumably lack the tacit knowledge of equine body language and social behavior
required to engage in safe interactions with the ponies. Park rules regarding
interactions with wildlife, therefore, emphasize the importance of giving the
ponies plenty of space, both as a show of respect for their wildness and as a
matter of visitor safety.
For example, island visitors who use the  restrooms are greeted with y-
ers ofering a reminder to remain at least 40 feet away from the ponies while
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       
   () –
taking pictures (Figure 3). But the temptation to touch and feed the ponies
is sometimes too much for island visitors, even without being motivated by
seles. During the busier season, a volunteer force called “Pony Patrol” travels
the island’s developed areas in golf carts, monitoring visitor behavior around
ponies who are grazing in the campgrounds and along the roadsides. Like the
restroom yers, Pony Patrol ofers a friendly reminder to visitors of the risks of
getting in kicking and biting range.
Visitors engaging in physical contact with ponies is a common topic of
social media discussion for the island’s regular visitors, who frequently express
their frustration with it: “They have no sense. They think and act like these
are domesticated pet ponies not wild creatures. They don’t see that they are
visitors to the horses’ [sic] habitat, they see it as the horses are there for their
entertainment period. I hate the attitude” (, April 23, 2019). In addition
to policing physical interactions between humans and horses, visitor educa-
tion and law enforcement focus on proper food storage and motor vehicle
trac safety.
Food Storage
An ongoing challenge is the issue of food and food storage. Horses and ponies
are grazing animals with digestive systems adapted to a near-constant intake of
grasses, and their drive to eat makes some of them opportunistic campground
raiders. Potato chips and Doritos hold a special appeal (Respondent 2), but
one of us has also intervened with ponies shaking out a beach tote for apples,
and approaching a minivan for pizza. In the search for food, these ponies have
  Practice Safe Seles yer.
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   
   () –
been known to enter or dismantle tents, take over beach blankets, and reach
into cars and travel trailers to rummage for snacks.
This is undesirable because of the general risks of habituation, but also in an
immediate sense, because it can be life-threatening when ponies adapted to a
brous and calorically sparse diet gain access to unaccustomed quantities of
nutrient-dense food. In July 2017, for example, the 7-year-old mare N2BHS-
Chama Wingapo died of colic after ingesting a large amount of carelessly
stored dog food. Campers and beachgoers, for their part, risk being kicked or
bitten when a pony decides to defend their purloined Doritos.
 and  collaborate on public information and resource campaigns to
help human visitors better understand how to reduce these risks (Sharpe, 2017).
Explanatory signs attached to campsite picnic tables emphasize the impor-
tance of pony-proof food storage, and visitors can also pick up free cooler
straps from the park oce or volunteers that wrap tightly around picnic cool-
ers to prevent enterprising ponies from ipping lids open. In 2019,  and 
acquired locking steel food storage boxes for the  campsites that will allow
campers to store their food safely out of ponies’ reach (Hooper, 2018).
Speed Limit
There are only a few roads on Assateague Island – Maryland State Route 611
carries visitors from the mainland across the Verrazano Bridge onto a cause-
way and then onto the island proper. Assateague State Park, whose parking
and camping entrance is located where Route 611 dead-ends at the dunes, has
just one low-speed campground road. Bayberry Drive is the island’s main arte-
rial, stretching 3.5 miles from Route 611 to the southernmost point of the 
developed area.
A recent three-year cluster of vehicle collisions that resulted in the deaths
of four ponies prompted dedicated park visitors to lobby for reduced speed
limits. The state of Maryland reduced the Route 611 bridge and causeway
limit from 40 to 30 , and  reduced the Bayberry Drive limit from 30
to 25. Other notable new road additions are a set of ashing “Share The Road”
warning signs encountered upon arriving on the causeway, along with a set
of speed bumps – the rst speed bumps to be installed on a Maryland state
numbered highway.
Conclusion
Our multispecies ethnography revealed how the operation of interspecies
borders and bordering practices on Assateague Island sustains a relational
conception of pony wildness that is both exible in its characteristics and
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       
   () –
place-specic. In visitors’ substantive understanding of pony wildness, we
found much overlap with the notion of wild as “not captive” discussed in the
literature on free-roaming horses. Here, wildness does not mean “aversion to
contact with humans” nor does it t many ecologists’ preference for “native
wildlife,” but rather denotes independence from human caretaking and suc-
cessful inhabitation of the island in spite of challenging ecological conditions.
In this context, even opportunistic scavenging of human food may be under-
stood as a manifestation of wildness on the part of scrappy survivors.
This place-specic yet remarkably exible conception of wildness also
incorporates an understanding of the Assateague ponies’ history as animals
who reclaimed a self-determined life on the island, often expressed by visitors
who remind one another that “they were here rst” as an argument for honor-
ing their wildness and autonomy. In this notion of wildness, Assateague Island
ponies thrive there today as a result of their adaptations to this specic habitat,
and their ability to both exploit the de-developed backcountry and share the
developed areas with intensive human uses in ways that meet their needs.
The relational dynamics of pony wildness as enacted on Assateague Island
buttress eforts to rebalance conict and coexistence in human-wildlife
relations elsewhere (Boonman-Berson, Turnhout, & Carolan, 2016; Frank,
Glikman, & Marchini, 2019). Though the Assateague Island ponies’ lack of fear
of humans is the result, to an extent, of our two species’ shared evolutionary
and cultural history, attenuation of misanthropy has been observed with other
species inhabiting other shared spaces, including non-tourist spaces (Collard
& Gillespie, 2017; Meijer, 2019). A vision of multispecies society too preoccu-
pied with the prevention of conict, reliant on cultivating mutual fear and
aversion, is not only ethically thin, but also, in many cases, misplaced. As we
have shown, the ponies are capable of making spatial decisions that meet their
needs. For example, in the fall of 2018, visitors observed that N9BM-J Giggles
and M6MSY Bodacious Bob, who occupy a territory that straddles the southern
part of the developed area and the northernmost undeveloped zone, would
sometimes remove their new foal from intense visitor attention by retreating
into harder-to-reach places in the marsh and dunes.
Though no humans reside permanently on Assateague Island, park per-
sonnel and visitors constitute a de-facto year-round human presence. In this
respect, this tourist destination actually has much in common with the cities
and suburbs to which most human visitors return at the end of their island
vacations. Thus, what we have learned about the uidity of pony wildness
on Assateague Island can inform research on wild equine communities who
share space with human communities in other contexts, including some urban
settings. To this end, we intend to harness the analytic framework developed
here to explore dynamics of more-than-human kinship beyond tourist spaces.
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   
   () –
Notwithstanding the mostly fortunate circumstances of the Assateague Island
ponies, the future for free-roaming horses and burros on U.S. public lands
is precarious.
Climate change is making survival more dicult across an increasingly arid
West, and powerful ranching, mining, and energy interests actively oppose
their presence on public lands. Wild horse and burro advocacy organizations
strive (with only limited success) to shift federal management of wild horses
and burros away from removal and lethal management. Though cities and sub-
urbs rarely gure as habitat for free-roaming equids, the City of Moreno Valley,
California – the study site of our current project – is home to a herd of several
hundred free-roaming burros, who use both open public spaces surrounding
the town and its public parks and private properties. What are the multispecies
politics of wild burros living in this busy Riverside County community, with
people who love them, do not love them, sometimes hit them with cars, and
often protect them? How can what we learn about the dynamics of kinship
here shape the protection and management of wild horses and burros in herds
located in remote public lands?
Acknowledgments
We thank Jason Lambacher and three anonymous reviewers for their
valuable suggestions. We also thank several of the August 2018 members
of Assateague Island’s state line band for inspiring this article: Sapphire,
Lion’s Mane, Bessy Twister, Chica Linda, and Sienna Belle.
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... The problem, he contends, is not captivity as such, but how tightly the movements, choices, and actions of the captives are controlled, and thus how much control the captives have over their lives. On this view, HMAs spanning tens of thousands of acres that provide horses access to range, resources, mates, and companions as well as opportunities for play and exploration do meaningfully less violence to autonomy and freedom than holding pens that sharply curtail horses' opportunities to lead self-determined lives (see also Britton and Hunold, 2021). ...
... People whose connection to these herds ranges from admiring the animals from afar on social media to hands-on engagement on the ground subscribe to a vision of free-roaming horses that rejects considerations of 'nativeness' while incorporating forms of management that seek to support their autonomy on the range (Britton and Hunold, 2021). In this perspective, which values freeroaming horses as 'independent, complete beings with powers and potentials of their own' (Lynch, 2021, p. 8 I'm not sure how long Washakie will be feeling feisty, but it's so nice to see him strutting his stuff like a young stud. ...
... Advocates attended the roundups each day, observing from BLM-approved locations distant from the trap. They reported on the numbers of horses caught and hauled away, deaths, escapes, and the horses' conditions as best they could discern, as the horses ran into the trap ahead of As we have previously explored, people who are interested in wild horses tend to link them to the unique places they occupy (Britton and Hunold, 2021), and photographers routinely show wild horses moving around and through identifiable landscape features in their HMAs and other habitats. Horses, moreover, are valued as individuals. ...
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