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Visiting the Wild Spanish Mustangs of North Carolina

Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures and experiences and makes the world a more tolerant place.

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There are few experiences quite as thrilling as seeing the wild Spanish Mustangs roaming freely on the beautiful sandy beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Known as the Spanish Mustangs of Corolla, these stunning horses have roamed this harsh and unforgiving land for almost 500 years. Yet, despite the obvious obstacles they face and the seemingly sparse supply of food, they have thrived here since they first arrived with the Spanish explorers of the early 16th century.

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How did they get here?

Early Spanish explorers brought with them hardy mustangs to be used for the obvious reasons of transportation and work. When colonies failed or explorers moved on or returned to Europe often times the horses were left behind. Sailing ships of the 16th century were not ideal to transport horses so if they were no longer needed they were left to fend for themselves. Also, ships that were in distress or sank off the treacherous North Carolina coast would oftentimes release the horses into the Atlantic knowing that they had a good chance of swimming to shore and surviving. Although we may never know the exact circumstances of how they got here these are the most feasible and generally accepted explanations for how the wild mustangs of Corolla came to be.

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the-wild-spanish-mustangs-of-corolla-north-carolinas-outer-banks

How do they survive?

The Spanish Mustangs that were brought to the coast of North Carolina were a sturdy breed. When you see them up close it is obvious even to the unknowing observer that this is a stout and well-built horse. Surprisingly, at least to me, is the fact that there is plenty of food available for the horses in their habitat. They eat a very limited diet of coarse seagrasses, sea oats, acorns, and other native vegetation. It is actually very dangerous for them to eat foods that we normally associate with horses such as apples and carrots. Ingesting these foods would put the horses at great risk for colic and could even result in death. This is why it is illegal to get within fifty feet of the horses. You will receive a very hefty fine if you are caught getting too close to the horses or trying to feed them.

As for the weather, the horses seem to have developed an instinct as to where to go when storms come ashore. There are many homes in the area where the horses roam and they use the homes for protection from the harsh weather. Somehow they have managed to survive all these years on their own without direct human intervention.

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How to see them?

Seeing the Spanish Mustangs of Corolla can be done either on your own or as part of a tour offered by a few local outfitters. We chose to take a tour with Wild Horse Adventure Tours based in Corolla. They are very highly rated on Tripadvisor and have a fleet of modified Humvee’s that can accommodate 13 passengers. Their staff is highly professional and very knowledgeable on the history of the mustangs and the tour we took with them was certainly one of the highlights of our stay in the Outer Banks.

Our guide for the afternoon, Stu.

Our guide for the afternoon, Stu.

If you wish to see the wild horses on your own you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle. The horses are confined to a 7,544 acre section on the northern end of the island where there are no roads and they have been confined here since 1995. The land is part private (4,213 acres) and part public (3,331 acres), and includes the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. At one time the horses roamed the entire island but with the completion of route 12 from Duck to Corolla and the development that followed it became a safety issue for the horses. To protect them there is now a fence that stretches from the ocean to the sound to keep them confined to their home area. If you do venture out to see them on your own please remember that it is illegal to get within 50 feet of the horses. Also, even though there are no roads on this part of the island there are still many houses here and four-wheel drive vehicles on the beach so drive with caution.

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How many horses are here?

At the present time the herd of Corolla Spanish Mustangs numbers only about 100 horses. Experts feel that the ideal herd size should be 120 to 130 horses but the US Fish & Wildlife Service feels differently and has made efforts to block the plan for a larger herd. Legislation to mandate a larger herd passed the US House of Representatives but was never acted upon by the US Senate so it remains in limbo. The larger herd size is critical to the long-term survival of the horses as inbreeding has resulted in deformities in newborn foals. A recent decision to allow wild Spanish Mustangs from the southern Outer Banks into the Corolla herd should help infuse some genetic diversity into this group. Hopefully this move along with strong local support for the horses will convince the US Congress and the Fish and Wildlife Service to mandate a larger herd size to ensure the long-term survival of the Corolla Mustangs.

The one hundred or so horses that make up the Corolla herd include a number of harems and bachelor groups. A harem will include a dominant stallion along with a number of mares and their colts. The bachelor groups consist of the older stallions or those that are too young to be dominant yet. As with any wildlife the inevitable clashes will occur between stallions as they try to project their dominance and take over harems. Yet one more reason to maintain a safe distance from the horses.

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Who cares for the horses?

Until fairly recently there really was no management or oversight of the Corolla Mustangs. That changed when the Corolla Wild Horse Fund (founded in 1989) was incorporated in 2001 as a non-profit charity. Today the Fund has a staff of three full time employees who are on call 24 hours a day. The mission of the Fund includes herd management, rescue and rehabilitation, DNA testing, adoption, education, and of course patrolling the wild horse sanctuary.

With the Fund now managing the herd, they will attend to horses that get sick or injured and require attention. For minor injuries the horses are treated in the field but if a horse is removed from their habitat for treatment they cannot be returned. In these cases the horses are put up for adoption or sent to farms to live out the remainder of their lives. It’s a harsh reality, but once exposed to humans and other horses they cannot be returned to the wild.

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As you watch these majestic creatures parade the beautiful beaches of the Outer Banks it is hard to comprehend how they have survived here for so long. DNA testing has indeed confirmed that these horses are of Colonial Spanish origin, making them one of the oldest and most endangered breeds left in the world. No matter the exact circumstances of how they got here, or when they actually arrived, their mere presence certainly adds a fascinating and mysterious allure to any visit to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are wild mustangs safe from becoming extinct?

Answer: No, they are not, at least as far as their existence on the Outer Banks. The herd size is at a critical point for sustainability. The problem is that there is not sufficient genetic variability in the herd. This is why they have introduced stallions from herds further south of the Banks to expand the gene pool. The herds from other parts of the Outer Banks are also descendants of the Colonial Spanish Mustangs. The Corolla herd size is currently at about 100 horses. If you have not been to the Outer Banks to see these magnificent creatures, it is well worth the trip.

Question: Is there still a fight in regards to wanting a larger heard of wild Mustangs in North Carolina?

Answer: The fight continues to this day with North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis pushing legislation to protect the horses. Experts still feel it is critical to maintain a herd size of 120 to 130 for the long term survival of the herd. The Corolla herd is currently still at about 100, which is not sufficient for genetic variability.

© 2016 Bill De Giulio

Comments

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 14, 2020:

It definitely was a thrill to see the Spanish Mustangs on the Outer Banks. How they manage to survive is a fascinating story. Hopefully the herd size gets to a point where it can sustain itself. They really are magnificent creatures.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 14, 2020:

It is incredible that these horses have survived with the scarcity of food, etc. It must have been a thrill to see them as close as you did on that guided tour. I hope that the herd is allowed to grow a bit ensuring its survival.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 29, 2016:

Thank You Dianna. I have wondered the same thing, especially with all of the hurricanes that have come along over the last 500 years. They have certainly developed an instinct as to where to go and how to survive the elements. It's a beautiful sight seeing them on the beach, hopefully they will still be there 500 years from now. Have a great day.

teaches12345 on September 28, 2016:

I was fortunate to see them years ago when we lived over that way. They are beautiful. It is puzzling how they have managed to survive so long without human care. Great article and well done.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 26, 2016:

Hi Flourish. Thank you. In a way it saddens me that they are now somewhat restricted due to development on the island but it is certainly better their safety and well being. They certainly are a hearty breed to have survived there for centuries. Thanks so much, have a great week.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 25, 2016:

It's been years since I've seen them but I recall how absolutely stunning they were. I saw them backin the days when they were undenied in and roaming more widely. They are so amazing, hearty and majestic. Loved your photos too.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 24, 2016:

Thank you Linda. It was an amazing experience. We really enjoyed our time on the Outer Banks

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 23, 2016:

I love this article, Bill. The photos are beautiful and the information is very interesting. What a wonderful place to visit!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 21, 2016:

Hi Bill. We went to the Outer Banks for a wedding and when we learned of the Spanish Mustangs roaming the beaches there we were determined to see them. Simply an amazing sight and definitely a wow moment. Thanks as always, have a great week.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 21, 2016:

Hi Suzie. Great to see you here. I must admit, it was an amazing sight seeing these mustangs roaming freely on the beach. And when I learned how they got there and how long they have been surviving on those beaches it just blew me away. Just another fascinating piece of history. Hope all is well and thanks for stopping by.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 21, 2016:

Wow! Really? I had no idea. You don't think of wild mustangs in NC. Really cool article, Bill. Thanks for the education, my friend, and Happy Wednesday to you.

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on September 21, 2016:

Hi Bill, wow what an interesting article about these beautiful horses. I never knew anything about them and found their journey fascinating. Quite a stunning sight they must be along the beaches roaming free. Wild horses are wonderful to see still existing in today's world. Thanks so much for yet another beautiful piece with stunning photos!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 21, 2016:

Hi John. Thank you. I certainly hope they decide to leave the brumbies alone, how sad if they decide to go ahead and cull the population. I have always wanted to visit Australia and hopefully one day that will become a reality, and I would love to see the wild horses there. It really was something special to see these majestic animals running on the beaches of the Outer Banks. Have a great day.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on September 20, 2016:

This is a delightful article, Bill. I love horses and in Australia we have many wild horses, generally called brumbies. In the Snowy Mountains (aka.The Man from Snowy River) for instance, consideration is being given to culling the population which the authorities believe is becoming out of control. It will be a sad day if that is decided. Thank you for sharing about the Wild Spanish Mustangs of Corolla.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 20, 2016:

Thank you Terry, appreciate the comment.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on September 20, 2016:

Love the article, love the video, love the memories!!! Truly blessed!!!