The Outer Banks, a 175 mile long string of sand dunes, off the coast of North Carolina have been on the news a lot in the past couple of days due to Hurricane Irene’s impending approach. So I can’t help but think about the 350 wild Banker Island horses that make their homes there. I worry about the people, for sure, but I also worry about these magnificent horses who have lived there for hundreds of years.
I write a lot of breed profiles for Horse Illustrated magazine and one of my favorites was on the horses of the Eastern Seaboard. Many people are familiar with the Mustangs of the west, but few really know about the wild horses that live along the eastern coast. Horses evolved on the plains of North America but became extinct. Luckily many migrated over the land bridge and developed further in Asian and Europe. Columbus brought the horses with him to the New World. The wild horses reached the eastern coast through ship wrecks, lost causes or abandoned settlements. The horses of the Banker Islands are now living relics of these times, proof that soldiers, settlers and sailors, hoping to find a brave new world, passed through many years ago.
In honor of the Banker Horses here is a short breed profile about them. This breed and the four other Eastern breeds: The Carolina Marsh Tacky, the Sable Island Horse, the Chincoteague Pony, the Florida Cracker Horse, are included in my book The Original Horse Bible.
I hope and pray that the horses find shelter and safety in higher ground. I can only hope that their experience with hurricanes in the past will hold them in good stead.
Banker Horses on Corolla Island
The Banker Horse
The wild Banker Horse makes its home on a group of islands called the Outer Banks located off the coast of North Carolina. Genetic testing has shown the blood variant Q-ac, a rare and ancient Spanish marker, is present in these horses, proving they have existed on the island for four hundred years.
In 1492, Spanish explorers set up breeding stations in the New World on Hispaniola for saddle and work horses. In 1526, eighty-nine of these horses and five hundred people, led by Luis Vazquez de Ayllon, traveled up the coastline of present day North and South Carolinas and Virginia to create a colony. It wasn’t an auspicious start, and the colony was finished within the year. Many people died, including de Ayllon. The ragtag group that returned to the Antilles left behind many dead compatriots and surplus horses. The abandoned horses migrated to the Shackleford Banks and nearby islands where their numbers grew, helped along with more horses abandoned during shipwrecks in the late 1500’s. With no further influx of horses, the bloodlines on the islands remained true.
In 1926, National Geographic Magazine published an article on motor coaching through North Carolina, stating that there were between 5,000 and 6,000 horses on the islands. That number took a steep decline in the 50’s when thousands were removed in a mistaken belief that the horses and other livestock would cause the Outer Banks to wash away. “No one knows what happened to the horses,” Carolyn Mason told me. She is a spokesperson for the Foundation for Shackleford Wild Horses, an association that co-manages the horses, along with the National Park Service at Cape Lookout National Seashore. “But many residents on Shackleford begged the state legislature to leave the horses until they could prove they were causing damage. Nothing was ever done and so the horses remained.”
Today there are fewer than 350 Banker horses left in the world. The biggest herd is on Shackleford (about 117), which is also the largest genetically diverse herd. “The legislation that protects them limits the number,” says Mason. “We keep numbers down using a Humane Society of the United States approved birth control on select mares. We also adopt out, which is a way to get the breed out into the public.”
Although the Banker horse is a shorter breed, it is well proportioned and compact with strong haunches and slender legs. It has a long head with a straight profile. It belongs to a small group of genetically pure Spanish horses that includes the Paso Fino and the Pryor Mountain Mustang. It is also typical of old-style Spanish horses, possessing inherited gaits such as the running walk, single foot, amble, and pace. The Banker horse is also called the Shackleford, Corolla, Ocracoke or Shackleford Bank. It stands just under 14.2 hh and is found in the colors of buckskin, dun, bay, chestnut, brown . In the Shackleford herd there are some pinto colorations.
Associations: Foundation for Shackleford Wild Horses—www.shacklefordhorses.org; Corolla Wild Horse Fund—www.corollawildhorses.com