See the Beauty of Wild Horses on the Coast

See the Beauty of Wild Horses on the Coast

Lucky visitors often spot wild horses roaming Carova Beach on the Outer Banks

For more than 400 years, the most enduring – and endearing – residents of the Outer Banks, the Banker ponies, have called this sliver of land between sound and sea home. They’re Spanish mustangs descended from a herd brought here by explorers as early as the 1520s, and are 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, the largest herds of Banker ponies are found 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 around 120 stallions, mares and foals that call their beaches and dunes home. A smaller, more domesticated herd lives on Ocracoke Island. The horses are wild, but adventurous visitors can get a close-up view of them by taking one of many guided tours offered at both Corolla and Shackleford Banks.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund (CWHF) has managed and protected the herd and its habitat since 1989. From its office near the Currituck Lighthouse in Old Corolla Village, the CWHF offers children’s programs on the Banker ponies, 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 tours for groups with guides certified by the CWHF.

The herd on Shackleford Banks lives on the southernmost island of the Outer Banks in the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Since the island is three 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’s Center on nearby Harker’s Island offers advice, tips and safety reminders for your trip to see the horses.

Wild horses on the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort

Wild horses are easily seen at the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve in Beaufort

Guided tours, and ferries to Shackleford Banks, are available in Beaufort through Shackleford Wild Horse & Shelling Safari. Tours are two hours, and ferries return to the mainland every hour during the afternoon, so you are 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 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.

The Banker ponies are considered a critical conservation priority by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and are protected. Remember they are wild animals, and you should always maintain a safe distance of 50 feet from the horses. While photography of the horses is encouraged, feeding them is not.

Jason Frye is the author of two North Carolina guidebooks and lives and writes in Wilmington.


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