Visiting the Wild Spanish Mustangs of North Carolina
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.
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 often times 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.
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 sea grasses, 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.
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.
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.
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.
There are three groups of wild Spanish Mustangs left on North Carolina’s Outer banks. One is the Corolla Wild Mustangs of this article. The others are the Wild Shackleford Ponies and the Ocracoke Ponies, both found further south along the Outer Banks.
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.
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.
© 2016 Bill De Giulio