For 500 years, the most enduring – and endearing – residents of the Outer Banks, the wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs, have called this sliver of land between sound and sea home.
They’re 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. 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.
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 their beaches and dunes home. A smaller, more domesticated herd lives on Ocracoke Island.
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 Corolla Wild Horse Fund (CWHF) has managed and protected the herd and its habitat since 1989. From its office, the CWHF offers children’s programs on the Colonial Spanish horses, as well as an interactive museum and store. Members of the CWHF can accompany the herd manager on a ride-along for a day of stunning photo opportunities and insight into the herd from someone who knows the herd intimately.
You can also rent a Jeep and drive on the beach into the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge on a self-guided tour. Or, instead, rely on experienced off-road drivers and arrange a tour through one of the outfitters in Corolla. Wild Horse Adventure Tours offers two-hour family expeditions into the heart of the horse’s territory for groups of two to 14. Corolla Wild Horse Tours also offers two-hour group tours with knowledgeable guides.
The herd on Shackleford Banks lives on the southernmost island of the Outer Banks in the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Since the island is 3 miles offshore and only accessible by private watercraft or passenger ferry, seeing these horses really is an adventure. Self-guided tours and photography are a popular option, and the Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Visitor Center on nearby Harkers Island offers advice, tips and safety reminders for your trip to see the horses.
Guided tours, and ferries to Shackleford Banks, are available in Beaufort through Shackleford Wild Horse & Shelling Safari. Tours are three hours, and ferries return to the mainland periodically during the afternoon, so you're free to spend the day exploring the beach, photographing the horses or gathering some of the best shells on the Carolina coast. Don’t forget to bring your hat, sun block and plenty of water for your trip to Shackleford Banks.
The Foundation for Shackleford Horses (FSH) is a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the horses and their habitat as one of North Carolina’s ecological and cultural treasures. It funds herd management plans, genetics research, health studies and more. Through its solo efforts and work with other conservation groups and the National Park Service, FSH is ensuring a safe and healthy future for the Shackleford Banks wild horses.
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.