Meet the Wild Ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park

These carefree equines are the descendants of 50 Assateague ponies, released into the area in 1975.

Wild pony at Grayson Highlands in Virginia.
Wild pony at Grayson Highlands in Virginia. Cavan Images / Getty Images

Spread across 4,822 acres in southwestern Virginia, Grayson Highlands State Park is known for its sweeping views of mountain meadows (known as "balds"), its 2.8-mile leg of the Appalachian trail and, most notably, its thriving population of wild ponies. Standing at about four feet tall, the Grayson Highlands Ponies have become a wonderful highlight for anyone visiting the area.

Meet the wild ponies of Virginia's Grayson Highlands State Park. (Photo: jadimages/Shutterstock)

According to Virginia State Park staffer Amy Atwood, the carefree equines, which some speculate to be the descendants of Assateague and Chincoteague ponies, were released by the U.S. Forest Service into the area surrounding Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park in 1975.

Ponies With a Purpose

Why would the Forest Service release wild ponies in a state park? To control the growth of brush along the balds, which are a man-made landscape forged by extensive logging operations in the late 19th century. The balds maintained a clear-cut appearance through the first half of the 20th century due to cattle ranching, but after the area was transformed into a state park in 1965, there were no more cows to keep the brush in check. Goats have become a popular way to keep landscapes trimmed, but for the highlands, here is where the ponies came into the picture.

A wily pony colt rests in the grass at Grayson Highlands.
A wily pony colt rests in the grass at Grayson Highlands.


In the years since the ponies were released into the bald, the herd has thrived in the scrubby mountainous terrain, and the population now stands at around 150 individuals. To maintain a balance between the ponies and the environment, the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association was established in 1975 to monitor the herd and facilitate an annual auction of any excess colts. The proceeds of the auctions, sometimes as much as $500,000 go toward supporting the remaining herd; some of the earnings are earmarked for two local fire departments as well.

Brown wild pony in winter at Grayson Highlands State Park
Brown wild pony in winter at Grayson Highlands State Park. Tim Pennington / Getty Images

Are They Truly Wild?

The ponies are considered wild because they don't rely on humans for food, water or shelter. However, some people might argue that "semi-wild" is a more accurate term. That's because they're exceptionally friendly to humans and have no qualms about getting close to satisfy their curiosity and beg for food.

Grayson Highlands Pony
Claire Wickenden / 500px / Getty Images

While many of the ponies seem totally cool with being touched or petted (especially if you have some food), the park strongly discourages feeding, handling, or harassing. The best way to enjoy the company of these strange and beautiful horses is by photographing and observing them from a safe, respectable distance.

A trio of ponies graze in Grayson Highlands State Park.
A trio of ponies graze in Grayson Highlands State Park.

David Fossler/Shutterstock

Writer Mary Morton experienced the extent of this behavior firsthand while hiking in Grayson Highlands State Park in 2012. Morton explains on her blog: "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."

View Article Sources
  1. "Favorite 5 Reasons to attend the Grayson Highlands Festival." Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation. 2014.