For 500 years, the most enduring residents of the Outer Banks, the Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs, have called this island paradise home.
Until recent years, the Outer Banks of North Carolina were considered some of the most isolated and under-developed areas in the country. The banks consist of a string of sand dunes that serve to protect the mainland of North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean. They are separated from the mainland by large bodies of water called sounds.
The Colonial Spanish Mustangs spotted along the beaches of Corolla are feral horses descended from a herd brought here by explorers as early as the 1520s, and they’re recognized as the state horse of North Carolina.
Today, you’ll find the largest herds of feral horses at the extreme ends of the Outer Banks. Corolla, to the north, and Shackleford Banks, the southernmost of the barrier-island chain, have herds of about 100 stallions, mares, and foals that call the beaches and dunes home. A smaller, more domesticated herd lives on Ocracoke Island.
How they got here is a bit of a mystery. It’s said that some swam ashore from shipwrecks while others were castoffs of failed settlements, left to flourish on these untouched barrier islands for hundreds of years.
Among the first explorers to visit the North Carolina coast was a Spaniard named Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, who had received a charter from the Spanish king which gave him the right to explore and colonize much of the eastern seaboard. In 1521, Ayllon sent one of his captains, Gordilk, in charge of an expedition that landed at River John the Baptist (thought to have been Cape Fear). Other Ayllon explorers spent considerable time at a place called “Chicom,” thought to be in the same vicinity.
The Spaniards had trouble with the Indians. It seems they were taking Indian children as slaves and sending them to the West Indies. There was a great Indian uprising led by Corees, and the Spaniards were forced to flee to stronger Spanish holdings in Florida, leaving behind all their livestock.
A more feasible origin story dates back to just 60 years later, during one of Richard Greenville’s expeditions along the North Carolina coastline. Greenville was an English commander overseen by Sir Walter Raleigh who made regular routes along the coastline from the West Indies, to the early colonies of North Carolina and Virginia, and back to England. The late 1500s were a time of English expansion and colonization, as well as trading and commerce in the southern West Indies, even among the Spanish who still frequented the coastline but were technically at war with England, and as a result, a number of European ships would pass by the Outer Banks waters.
In June of 1587, Greenville was leaving the West Indies with a healthy cargo of sugar, food, and livestock including Spanish mustangs, and was heading up the coast along with a small fleet of ships to carry the supplies, in order to deliver the goods to the newly established English colonies. Historical records indicate that Greenville and his small fleet had trouble along Cape Fear, and then on the outskirts of Portsmouth Island, with the ships catching in the dangerously shallow Diamond Shoals. One ship, in particular, the Tyger, was lost to the battering waves and the livestock floated ashore or became lost at sea.
While these two explanations are the most plausible for the horse’s presence on the North Carolina Coast, they are not a definitive link to the appearance of the horses. Many local experts believe the horses, which are clearly descendants of Spanish Mustangs, were washed ashore by Spanish or English shipwrecks in the 1500s. This theory is based on the appearance and characteristics of the horses, as well as early 1700s accounts of Corolla settlers who spotted them and made note of the horses in their journals.
And while we may never know the true origin of the horses, some of the intrigue behind the horses is the mystery of how they got there.
Preserving the Herd
Since the formation of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund in 1989, the horses have been monitored and looked after by a group of dedicated volunteers and trained animal specialists. The CWHF aims to protect, conserve, and responsibly manage the herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs roaming freely on the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks, and to promote the continued preservation of this land as a permanent sanctuary for the horses.
In 1997, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks found a champion in United States Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr. In order to ensure that the National Park Service would maintain a genetically healthy herd size, Congressman Jones worked with the nonprofit Foundation for Shackleford Horses. The Congressman sponsored federal legislation entitled the Shackleford Banks Act. A law since 1998, the Act mandates that the wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs roaming 3,000 acres of Cape Lookout National Seashore be managed at a target population of 120 – 130, with never less than 110.
Although the same endangered breed as the horses on Shackleford, the wild horses of Corolla have not had similar protection. Consequently, the low Corolla herd size poses a critical danger to the survival of the horses that goes beyond high levels of inbreeding. When the number drops below the recommended absolute minimum of 110, the herd is at extreme risk for being completely devastated by disease, drought, fire, flood, or hurricane.
Legislation has been initiated to provide the same legal protections for the Corolla Horses as for the Shackleford Horses, but no such legislation has been passed to date.
On Ocracoke Island, the herd is smaller in number, though larger in stature, thanks to regular feedings and veterinary care. The Ocracoke ponies, as they’re sometimes called, live in a 180-acre enclosure to protect them from N.C. Highway 12. Viewing platforms give visitors a glimpse into the paddocks and the daily life of these horses, which is far removed from their wild cousins.
Seeing The Horses
Adventurous visitors can get a close-up view of the horses by taking one of many guided tours offered at both Corolla and Shackleford Banks. Remember, the horses are wild animals and you should always maintain a safe distance of 50 feet. And while taking pictures of the horses is encouraged, feeding them is not.
The one thing any wild horse enthusiast should always bear in mind is to keep your distance. These horses look completely docile, and in most cases they are, but in actuality, they have been feral for hundreds of years and do not interact with the local human population. Never touch, approach, or feed the local horses – like anything wild, they are best admired from a distance, and hopefully with a camera with a very good zoom lens. Feeding or encroaching within 50 feet of a wild horse is illegal and dangerous to both humans and the horses.
If you want to spot a wild horse along the beaches of the Outer Banks simply be patient. The horses can appear when you least expect it, either crossing your path on your first expedition or years after you’ve vacationed on the islands. There are numerous tour companies that offer tours and can provide their knowledge of how and when to see the horses.
Information in this article gathered from VisitNC.com, OuterBanks.com, CorollaWildHorses.com, and NationalGeographic.org