Wild Horses of North Carolina

Frequent vacationers to the Carova area, a small beach community bordering the Virginia state line just north of Corolla that is accessible only by a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, often encounter surprising intruders in the yards and driveways of their rental homes. These trespassers make themselves at home along the small, sandy roads of the village with little regard for the visiting neighbors, as they are natives in the truest sense, having been residents of these beaches for hundreds of years.

But visitors don't seem to mind, and even welcome these unexpected guests tromping through their backyards, because these intruders are Carova's famous wild horses.

From the Northern Outer Banks to the southern beaches of the Shackleford Banks off the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina's beaches have the rare distinction of being home to a large population of wild horses. The long desolate beaches, shaggy dune lines and maritime forests that make the Outer Banks one of the most remote beaches on the East Coast have also made this stretch of shoreline ideal for native wild horses to thrive and live in relative undisturbed isolation.

But how did these unlikely residents, more commonplace in the Western United States, make the beaches of North Carolina their home? In fact, the horses are arguably the first visitors of the Outer Banks, and their story begins hundreds of years ago with the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

In 1493, Columbus made his second trip to the Americas, and on this journey he brought along 25 horses, with the intention of building ranches in Hispaniola in the West Indies. This is the first record of horses being transported to the New World, and Columbus, realizing that the availability of horses were crucial to the solders and colonists alike, stressed that every journey to the Americas should include horses to service the new World.

By 1500, large horse breeding ranches were operating in the Indies, and horses were being brought over with most every new arrival to the colonies. Wealthy members of the colonies enjoyed expansive island ranches, and a large number of Spanish Mustangs were not only a necessity for the new colony, but were a status symbol of the landowners' wealth and prestige.

Between 1500 and 1525, a Hispaniolan official from Spain named Lucas Vasques de Ayllon sent three expeditions to the coast of the Carolinas. This section of his exploration, from the Cape Fear River in North Carolina to Jamestown Island in South Carolina, became known as "Tierra de Ayllon," or the "Land of Ayllon."

In the summer of 1526, de Ayllon arrived to a section of this new territory he called the Rio Jordan, accompanied by six ships carrying 500 passengers and 89 horses, with the intention of establishing a new colony. The area was referenced to be near "Cape Feare," which places the colony in between Wilmington and the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Upon arrival, de Ayllon soon died of a fever and within a year, the colony was in ruins because of bad leadership, native hostilities and widespread disease. The remaining survivors of the failed settlement, 150 total, were able to catch a passing ship back to Hispaniola, and no further efforts were made to return to the colony.

The Spanish Mustangs were left behind, and are widely believed to be the ancestors of the modern Shackleford Banks wild horses. Just 6 years later, the Carolina Coast would be discovered and explored again, this time by the English, led by Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1584, Raleigh sent a small expedition, led by Philip Amadas, to explore the coast of the New World. The crew found an entrance into the Outer Banks, which at that time was part of "Virginia," named in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. This entrance to the Outer Banks was located in between Cape Hatteras and present day Cape Lookout.

The second expedition to this area just one year later, led by Sir Richard Grenville in the flagship Tiger, stopped first along the south side of Puerto Rico at Mosquito Bay. While there, Greenville traded with the Spanish for supplies to bring on their journey, including cattle, hogs and Spanish horses. These animals were intended for the colonists at Roanoke, located inland of the northern Outer Banks. They acquired more horses when they stopped again in Hispaniola.

Along their journey up the North Carolina coast, the ship passed the shoals at Cape Fear and stopped to fish at Cape Lookout. They reached an inlet and a subsequent entrance to the mainland in an area called "Wococon." This area is believed to be near the middle of modern-day Portsmouth Island. The captain tried to steer the ship into the Sound, but the ship became grounded and it took the crew several hours to free the ship and begin the necessary repairs to continue their journey to Roanoke.

In the struggle to protect the boat and the crew, most of the supplies the ship was carrying were tossed overboard, either by accident during the accidental grounding or as a deliberate attempt to lighten the load and preserve the ship. The supplies included the Spanish horses that the Tiger carried, and many historians believed that these overboard horses survived and prospered on the Outer Banks.

Fueling this theory are numerous observations of the horses through the next several hundred years. In the mid 1600s, author Wertenbarken wrote about his experiences hunting in the Carolinas and noted the abundance of the wild horses and their ability to thrive in the deserted Outer Banks. "These animals, as they were unmarked, belonged to anyone who could capture them. But to do this was no easy matter, for they were so fleet and so difficult to follow through the woods that one was more apt to ruin an old mount than to gain a new."

In the 20th century, the wild horses made a national debut with an article in a 1926 issue of National Geographic written by Melville Charter. Upon his tour of the Southern Coast of North Carolina northward to the Outer Banks, Charter made mention of the wild horses he found along the way. "... For centuries they have been roaming on the Banks, and current tradition has it that they are descended from Barbary ponies, which were brought over by Sir Walter Raleigh's colonists."

Charter continues, "Our quest landed us on a naked sun baked spit, where men were driving the so-called Banker ponies along the beach into a coral made of timbers from old wrecks. Perched on the pen's top rail, we took lens shots at the enclosed jam of 200 horses. The sun blazed, the sand blazed. The men were shouting in their broad dialect, so like that of the rural England of their ancestors. The United States seemed worlds away."

In more recent years, as coastal North Carolina became more inhabited and the horses no longer had miles of undeveloped room to roam, efforts were made to preserve the horses and measures were taken to protect them and provide a safe environment from the influx of new residents and visitors.

This is not to say that visitors are forbidden to discover and watch these historic animals. On the contrary, visitors are encouraged to explore the beaches off the coast and help in the preservation of the wild horses, and there are a number of destinations along the North Carolina coast where horse lovers can expect to encounter a mustang.

Just east of Morehead City and Beaufort is 9-mile long Shackleford Island, and this is the home of the famous "Banker Ponies" referenced throughout history, starting with English colonization. They are the descendents of the mustangs of Hispaniola and Spain.

The Banker Ponies, approximately 220 in all, are unique and have been studied by numerous scientists both for their history and for their unusual behavior. They share a genetic factor with the ancient Spanish mustangs, the blood variant Q-ac, which has been found in only two other concentrations of mustangs throughout the world - Puerto Rico and Montana. They are also noticeably smaller than normal horses and extremely territorial, a trait that is strictly unique to the Banker Ponies.

As the Shackleford Banks gain popularity as a vacation destination, efforts have been made to protect the Banker Ponies from the threats that naturally come with an increased human population, such as cars, humans and pollution to the area's waters and natural resources. In 1998, the "Shackleford Banks Wild Horses Protection Act" was passed by the US Senate, and the President signed the legislation into law. In addition, The Foundation for Shackleford Horses was founded to research, both scientifically and historically, the unique Banker Ponies and to ensure their preservation and continuation on Shackleford Island.

Among their duties, The Foundation for Shackleford Horses implements health and management plans for the horses, including administering vaccinations and regular check-ups, monitoring the development of each individual horse, and working to educate the public on the Banker Ponies.

Assistance for the wild ponies is a sad necessity. In 1997, one of Shackleford's favorite residents, Spirit, a small and shy white pony that was frequently spotted around the island, was found deceased along with a young mare whose company he kept. The death was the result of human interference, which was probably unintentional, but nevertheless devastating.

Since 1997, the little horse has become the "Spirit" of the Foundation and his story continues to raise donations for the Foundation's continued efforts to ensure such a tragedy will not happen again.

For visitors traveling further north, the beaches of Corolla and Carova are home to the Corolla Wild Horses. Like the Shackleford Banker Ponies, the Corolla Wild Horses are theorized to be direct descendents of the Spanish Wild Mustangs. Unlike the Shackleford breed, while the Corolla Wild Horses are still relatively small, they are still the taller of the two at an average of 14 hands or 13 feet, 6 inches tall. Also, because of their desolate location and smaller number of less than 100 horses, the Corolla horses are much more similar to each other than the Shackleford Ponies, because of 400 years of isolation and inbreeding.

To protect their numbers, the Corolla Wild Horse fund was founded in 1989 to heighten awareness of the presence of wild horses in the area. After 11 horses were killed along NC Highway 12, the only road in and out of the island, the fund became the organization to protect and preserve these descendents of Spanish Mustangs.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund, in order to manage and control the herd size, also allows for domestic adoption. Only younger animals are allowed to be adopted, as they have a much easier time transitioning to a domestic lifestyle, and the gene pool is less affected by their removal. The cost is $600, and an application must be filled out for the organization's approval process.

As recently as a few decades ago, the horses were some of the only residents along the northern Outer Banks. Considered one of the most underdeveloped coastal areas in the country, the horses roamed throughout the villages of Carova, Corolla, and even towards Duck.

As this area of the Outer Banks gained popularity, the horses retreated to the 4-wheel-drive area of Carova, which is fundamentally less populated because of its limited access. This was a smart move for the horses to make, as over the years, there have been a number of stories of these wild mustangs being injured in a car accident, hunted by unknowing intruders, or simply deprived of resources they need, such as fresh water, in the more developed areas.

While visitors still report seeing horses on the border of Corolla where the two-lane NC Highway 12 stops and the sand road along the beach begins, the best way to find this area is to take the sand roads into desolate Carova and go exploring.

Before you can hit the beaches on a horse viewing expedition, you need to take a few precautions. First of all, it is imperative that you have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. There is no road north of Corolla - simply tracks in the sand along the beach, and it is only accessible by 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Take air out of your tires to ensure that you won't get stuck in the soft sand, lowering them to approximately 15-20 psi. When you return from your adventure, you will find plenty of air hoses at local convenience stores to fill your tires back up to their normal level.

It is best to make the trip to Carova during low tide, when you can maneuver your vehicle along the harder sand closer to the ocean. At high tide, as the beach narrows, you will have to travel along the softer sand in the high tide line. The best way to get through without getting stuck is to follow tracks that other vehicles have made, keeping a slow and steady speed without stopping.

Carova also has the unique distinction of being the former home to an ancient maritime forest. At low tide, you can see the remnants along the surf in the form of old, dark tree stumps peeking out from the sand. Be mindful of these stumps and try to avoid them as you are driving past.

Also, be careful of vacationing beachgoers. Stick to the speed limit, and don't drive too close to families who are enjoying a day at the beach.

The wild horses aren't the only interesting sites you will encounter on your off-road adventure. As you turn off the main road and onto the sandy beach, you will quickly approach a local Carova landmark, "Penny's Hill," the largest non-vegetated sand dune north of Jockey's Ridge in Nags Head. Though not typically visible from the beach, the sandy off-ramp at mile marker 15 will lead you directly to Penny's Hill.

The next landmark is easier to spot, as it towers over the Carova beach. The Watchtower sits adjacent to an old Coast Guard station, marked "US Coast Guard Station No. 166" and is approximately seven miles north of the Corolla ramp, just 3 miles south of the Virginia State line. Though no longer in use, the watchtower and neighboring Coast Guard station are historical landmarks worth exploring.

If you do not have access to a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, or prefer a guided tour by a local expert, you can book a seasonal tour of the Carova beaches, the Wild Horses and all of the landmarks in between with a local company, like Wild Horse Safari for an interesting eco-adventure tour that will bring you eye-to-eye with Corolla's wildlife. If you and your family prefer a self-guided tour of the area, 4-wheel-drive Jeeps are available for rent from various local companies, like Beach Jeeps of Corolla.

While the horses you encounter in the Northern Outer Banks, or perhaps in the Ocracoke Pony Pen may curiously approach you without fear, because of their wild nature, it's important to remember that these horses are much different than the standard domesticated horse.

For one thing, the horses are prone to move in packs and are very territorial, particularly the Shackleford Banker ponies, which are more protective of their home turf than any other documented mustang. In addition, they are a very close group, protecting and looking out for the other horses in the herd, and if necessary, keeping one another away from any potential danger. Because of this, it's a good idea to appreciate the horses from a safe distance.

Also, while it's not uncommon to see the horses grazing on whatever they can find, (and sometimes for up to 16 hours a day), their digestive system is actually much more delicate than a domesticated horse. They are used to the variety of vegetation that they have grown up with, but an unfamiliar food, even a typical horse treat like an apple, can cause harm to a wild horse.

With the number of visitors and residents in the areas where wild horses call home increasing, more attention to the protection of the horses has been raised in the last decade, and a subsequent number of laws have been passed to help ensure the horses' survival. The most important and monumental of these laws is the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

This law was the first of its kind to bring the issue of wild horse protection, as well as their cultural and historical importance, to light. The law states that wild horses aren't only living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit, but that they "enrich the lives of the American people." For anyone who has seen a wild Banker Pony up close, this is a sentiment that certainly rings true.

In the same year, the federal government also set aside 80 million acres nationwide for the wild horses where herds could run free and live undisturbed. Unfortunately, as development has flourished, the number of acres has dwindled down to approximately 40 million acres today.

The redistribution of land was not the only action against wild horse preservation. The Burns Amendment, which was passed with the 2005 federal budget without so much as a hearing or opportunity for public review, opened the door to the extinction of thousands of wild mustangs. The bill, introduced by Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana), called for the sale of 10,000 mustangs that were in government pens, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM.) These were mustangs that were unsuccessfully adopted, let alone sold, and opponents to the bill argued that the only people willing to buy the mustangs were people who would slaughter the horses, not protect them. Facing public outcry, the fight against the sale of the mustangs is still ongoing.

A few months later, while in the process of rounding up another 10,000 horses supposedly due to poor range conditions, BLM eased public land grazing restrictions for private cattle, intruding on the wild horses' territory.

There are remedies for the displacement of wild horses, however, in the form of horse sanctuaries. Locally, the Shackleford Banks Ponies and the Ocracoke Ponies live in relatively protected horse sanctuaries, but they are not the only mustangs to have their own designated area. Horse Sanctuaries can be found nationwide, specifically in the western part of the United States where the icon of wild mustangs running free has always been linked with the image of the open ranges of the Wild West.

In fact, wild horses, roaming in their natural habitat, can be found in 11 western states: Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota and New Mexico. On 11,000 acres in South Dakota, the Institute of Range and the American Mustang, a non-profit organization founded in 1988 by Dayton O. Hyde, has a mission to give freedom and a quality of life to America's wild horses. Here, at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, visitors from all over the world come to see and photograph wild horses in large herds under spectacular conditions.

Another horse sanctuary with a vast preserve for horses is the Equus Rescue and Sanctuary. A project of DreamCatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary, Equus was established in 2003 to form a 1,200 acre preserve for a herd of 398 displaced mustangs in Northern California.

Some sanctuaries build preserves, while others work to find new homes for displaced wild horses, like The Redwings Horse Sanctuary. The Redwings Horse Sanctuary began in May 1991 as a non-profit organization in Carmel, California and works to end the abuse, neglect, and slaughter of horses, ponies, donkeys, mules, and burros through rescue and foster care. In its first year, Redwings rescued 15 equines from abusive or life-threatening situations. Redwings staff then rehabilitated the equines and matched them with carefully-screened foster homes.

Like the local Outer Banks sanctuaries, the majority of sanctuaries across the country are funded somewhat by government grants, but rely mostly on people's donations and hardworking volunteers.

Volunteers are always needed and are welcome in most sanctuaries, and the wild horses draw a deep love and respect out of everyone who has the opportunity to work alongside them. One of these most famous horse lovers and volunteers who proved that one person alone can do a lot to protect the wild horses was Wild Horse Annie.

In 1950, Velma B. Johnston was driving in Nevada and noticed a truck with blood dripping from the back. Following the truck, she soon discovered that it was carrying horses to a slaughter house. This led her to conduct her own research into how wild horses were rounded up by "mustangers," ranchers and hunters that captured wild horses for slaughter. Her research results proved just how badly wild horses were treated.

Deciding to make a change, Johnston began a grassroots campaign that involved mostly children. Young people from all across America sent letters to newspapers and legislators and attracted enormous attention that outraged the public and made them aware of the issue. As her recognition as a public figure grew, Johnston earned the nickname "Wild Horse Annie" from critics who were trying to poke fun at her endeavors.

Undeterred, Johnston continued her campaign to get the word about the horses' horrible treatment out to the public, and as a result, Nevada Congressman Walter Baring introduced a bill in 1959 prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on all public lands. The House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill, which became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act. The bill became Public Law 86-234 on September 8, 1959.

Many experts also believe that "Wild Horse Annie" was also responsible for the later Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which was based on her recommendation that Congress begin a program to protect wild horses and burros.

It's easy to see how the treatment of horses attracted nationwide attention, since the wild horses have been a fixture of American curiosity and appreciation for generations, inspiring legends, folk lore, and even movies.

In 2002, DreamWorks productions released Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a groundbreaking animated feature which was the first film of its kind to combine both traditional 2-D animation and the popular 3-D animation. The story was centered around a wild mustang named Spirit who resists the "two-legged's" attempts to enlist the freedom-loving animal into a beast of burden, all told from the horse's point of view. Because horses are notoriously difficult to animate, the artists had a living muse to help them create their character, the real-life "Spirit," a Kiger Mustang that DreamWorks found and purchased to match the initial designs of their hero.

The Kiger lineage traces back to the early 16th Century Spanish Conquistadors, with the approximately 700 Kigers that exist today descending from the legendary Kiger, Mesteno, the lead stallion for the Spanish herd. In general, the breed is physically smaller than most horses, and many have primitive dun markings that include zebra stripes on their legs or a dorsal stripe, which the real Spirit has.

Spirit himself was not born in the wild or into a herd, but on a ranch in Bend, Oregon. Despite his less-than-wild background, Spirit was the perfect model for DreamWorks' filmmakers and artists. They were looking for a beautiful and majestic Mustang - a true symbol of the untamed American West. Instantly they knew that Spirit, with his warm, genial personality and graceful movements, was the perfect horse to give them the inspiration to tell a compelling story about a wild mustang stallion and his fight for freedom.

Other characters in the movie, like Mariah and Rain, were various horses that the artists had known throughout their lives. Rain, for example, was based on a very sweet Medicine Hat mare with soft blue eyes.

While the folklore, stories and movies that surround wild horses is entertaining and inspiring, seeing a wild horse up close is a different experience altogether. This national fascination with wild horses draws countless visitors to North Carolina's Outer Banks every year. Some visitors are lucky enough to notice a pair of wild horses grazing in their sandy yards, while other folks might take a trip to the Ocracoke Island Pony Pen to lean against the long wooden fence and watch the horses as they come and go.

The good news is that no matter where your Outer Banks vacation leads you, weather on the Northern beaches of Corolla, the secluded Ocracoke Island, or the Southern Outer Banks, the wild horses are never too far away, running down the beaches, or perhaps grazing behind a sand dune - just as they have done for hundreds of years.

Terms: Corolla Wild Horses, Ocracoke Ponies, Shackleford Banks Wild Horses, Outer Banks Wild Horses

Information on Wild Horses of the Outer Banks, including Corolla, Ocracoke and Shackleford Banks.

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