Hurricane Irene and the Eastern Seaboard’s Wild Horses

Brown HorseThe 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

Posted in Horse Books, Horses, The Original Horse Bible Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to Hurricane Irene and the Eastern Seaboard’s Wild Horses

  1. Susan says:

    I’ve been to the Outer Banks and seen some of the wild horses. They are beautiful and I, too am very worried about what will happen to them during Hurricane Irene. I pray they will find a place of shelter and survive.

    • Hi Susan, I am sure they were beautiful to see. I’m going to call my source at the Horse Fund on Monday, so I will report back.
      Are you from that area?

    • Deanna Clark says:

      Susan, I join prayers to yours and asked the Carmelites here to pray for all the ponies along the coast. My heart can see them huddling together, backs against the wind. They are sturdy and know what to do….more than many people!

      It’s good to know others care about the wild horses. Besides the individual animals, theirs is such a romantic and all-American story.

      • Hi Deanna, I second that. I just came in from riding my horse. It’s a beautiful day and as I was riding I thought about the horses on the islands and all the horses in the path of the storm. I hope everyone is safe.

  2. Susan says:

    Hi Sharon,

    No, I’m not from the area. I’m from Minnesota but was in the are on vacation a few years ago and was so impressed. We stayed in a hotel where our balcony was looking right out on the ocean. We watched dolphins pass by each morning. But the wild horses were something that just touched my heart. I will look forward to your update.

    • Oh lovely! There is nothing like seeing wild horses in their environment.
      I did a breed profile on the New Forest Pony when I lived in England. I went to the gather and sale and saw the ponies. They wander around the shops and everywhere. The day I was there a mare had her foal right by the town notice board. The New Forest is something every horse lover should see. I’ve also seen the Dartmoor and the Exmoor in the wild. Beautiful.

  3. arlene Orlando says:

    Yes anyone with info on these these beautiful Mustangs , PLEASE POST IT, I have vacationed there , these mustangs , were awesome, they are very intelligent and savy to weather conditions i pray they are all safe…………………..

  4. Lucy says:

    Amy News? I was wondering myself!

    • deanna clark says:

      There was a mention on the news that the Assateague herd was moved to Chincoteague for safety. They are used to that every year anyway.

      The Banker ponies of Ocracoke in NC must have made out…they are tough and have lots of friends, even more so because they are such a tourist draw!

    • Hi Lucy,

      I haven’t heard anything since my last post on the subject, but all is well as far as I know. The horses in the Outer Banks all came through just fine.