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

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.

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.

Their purpose? 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. That's where these ponies came into the picture.

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 maintain the herd and facilitate an annual auction of any excess colts.

A pony foal nurses at the Grayson Highlands State Park.
A pony foal nurses at the Grayson Highlands State Park. (Photo: Christina Richards/Shutterstock)

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.

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."

The messy mane is seen draped over the eyes of a wild pony in Grayson Highlands State Park.
The messy mane is seen draped over the eyes of a wild pony in Grayson Highlands State Park. (Photo: jadimages/Shutterstock)

While many of the ponies seem totally cool with being touched or petted (especially if you have some food), the park strongly discourages any handling or harassing. The best way to enjoy the company of these majestic equines 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. (Photo: David Fossler/Shutterstock)
A wily pony colt rests in the grass at Grayson Highlands.
A wily pony colt rests in the grass at Grayson Highlands. (Photo: Cvandyke/Shutterstock)
A photographer observes the wild ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park.
A photographer observes the wild ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park. (Photo: Cvandyke/Shutterstock)
A young foal grazes with its mother in Grayson Highlands.
A young foal grazes with its mother in Grayson Highlands. (Photo: Christina Richards/Shutterstock)

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include new images and information.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.