Nature up close: Wild horses of the Outer Banks

CBS NEWS May 17, 2019, 4:04 PM

By “Sunday Morning” contributing videographer Carl Mrozek. 

We’ve all seen plenty of images in movies and on TV of mustangs on the prairies, high plains and deserts of the American West.  But wild horses on an East Coast beach? Not so much, except possibly recent escapees from a ranch or farm, because everyone knows that wild horses and beaches don’t mix. 

But they would be wrong, as there have been wild horses in and around the Outer Banks of Virginia and North Carolina for half a millennium – more than twice as long as there has been a United States of America.

The history of the “Bankers,” as they’re nicknamed, harks back to the earliest days of Spanish exploration and colonization of North America, in the early 16th century, when Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, launched a colony around Cape Fear. However, he and his minions enraged local natives by enslaving some of their children and sending them to the West Indies to toil on plantations. Eventually tensions boiled over as the natives rebelled and drove the Spaniards out of North Carolina and into Florida. In the tumult, the Spaniards abandoned many of their horses.

Apparently some of these mustangs were caught and raised by the natives, while others adapted to life in the coastal salt marshes, soon gaining a reputation as tough, hardy horses that thrived in the coastal zone, but which quickly died off when rounded up and sent inland where their new food fare did not suit their specially-evolved constitutions.

The Bankers proliferated throughout the Outer Banks from the Virginia state line to the Shackleford Banks 170 miles to the south.  At their peak, they numbered in the thousands even well beyond the mid- 20th century. However, the increasing popularity of the Outer Banks as an oceanfront playground gradually shrank their share of the barrier beaches and marshes to a fraction of what it once was. Consequently their population dwindled into the low hundreds by the end of the 2oth century, with one population on the southern end of the Outer Banks and another on the north end.

Today both herds retain the characteristics of Spanish mustangs, including having one less vertebra than most other horse breeds, plus their slender elegance and medium size, shaggy manes, even-temperament and endurance. In a nutshell, they are handsome, winsome horses.

Their ability to adapt to the harsh environment of the barrier beaches which is virtually devoid of standing fresh water and which supports only hardy vegetation, served them well for nearly five centuries. However, the proliferation of roads and beach houses throughout the Outer Banks has left them with less and less habitat. According to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, today’s herd shares 7,544 acres with 700 houses (plus thousands of people, pets and vehicles). 

Managing the northern Outer Banks for the benefit of wild horses, in addition to the tens of thousands of seasonal tourists and several thousand year-round residents, has proven challenging, requiring the cooperation of many agencies and individuals. Since 1989 this campaign has been spearheaded by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which conducts an active public education campaign to secure permanent protection for the Corolla herd at a genetically-sustainable level of at least 110 horses.  They also work with local tour guides and law enforcement to protect the horses from harassment by tourists and residents, including maintaining at least a 50′ safety zone between the horses and people, pets and vehicles.

The Corolla Wild Horses Fund is also championing legislation, the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act.  Similar legislation already protects the southern herd of “Bankers” on Shackleford Banks, at the southern end of the Outer Banks. In 2010 a state law spearheaded by a letter-writing campaign by local school kids declared the colonial Spanish mustang as the state horse of North Carolina, albeit without the long-term protections currently being sought by advocates. 

Local grassroots efforts to permanently protect wild horses of the Outer Banks enjoy broad support partly thanks to the importance of these herds to the local tourism business. Tens of thousands of tourists take guided dune buggy tours of the northern Outer Banks specifically to see and photograph “Bankers.” Many of them also shop and eat locally and stay in nearby motels, bed and breakfasts, etc. 

Despite their popularity, the future of wild horses in the northern Outer Banks remains uncertain. Even though they’ve been designated a critically-endangered horse by international equine agencies, they are not recognized as a native species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency, which manages the Endangered Species program. Hence they receive no special protection by the federal government, which manages some of the land they now utilize.

The native species status of horses remains a bone of contention among scientists, and between federal authorities and wild horse advocates who argue that not only did horses originate in North America, but that they did not all die out during the last Ice Age, with their genetic material now part of the wild equine genome in North America. While no one is specifically making that assertion on behalf of the wild horse herds on the Outer Banks, it does support the contention that many of America’s wild horses are “returned natives,” or a reintroduced native species, much like some populations of wolves, elk, and big horned sheep. Moreover, that once reintroduced, their behavior and ecological contributions are much like those of their native-born counterparts, and that they should be granted permanent resident status along with all of the pertinent protections.

For more information about the wild horses of the northern Outer Banks and the campaign to protect and preserve them visit the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

First New Foal of 2019 Born to Corolla Herd

Coastal Review Online

4.4.19 by Staff Reporter

COROLLA – The Corolla Wild Horse Fund announced Thursday that the first foal of 2019 was born March 31.

CWHF officials hadn’t determined the foal’s gender, but they said that both mom and baby were in good condition.

The foal was named Renzi in honor of Melissa Renzi, who has several terminal illnesses, has been in hospice care since 2017 and made her first visit to the Outer Banks last weekend in celebration of her birthday. Seeing the wild horses of Corolla was on her bucket list, CWHF officials said, and with the help of friends and the community, that dream came true on the same weekend the foal was born.

“It seemed only fitting to name the foal after Melissa, who is endlessly upbeat, strong, and kind. Traits the Banker horses share with her,” CWHF said in the announcement.

The herd of about 100 Colonial Spanish mustangs on the Currituck Outer Banks is one of only two groups of this threatened breed left in the wild. CWHF, the nonprofit group that manages the herd, said the horses were brought to the barrier islands by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The horses now roam freely on about 7,500 acres of habitat north of the paved section of N.C. 12

Jim and Melissa Renzi on their first visit to Carova, March 30. Photo: Jeff Kelly

CWHF uses darts to administer immuno-contraception using the federally approved substance porcine zona pelucida, or PZP. The program is conducted under the auspices of the Humane Society of the United States and the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana. PZP is administered annually and is the least invasive method of delivery and the most humane method to control population, CWHF said.

Mares younger than 4 or older than 15 and mares that have had at least one foal are darted annually in an effort to reduce inbreeding, improve the long-term health of the mares, and maintain a sustainable population of horses.

CWHF said there are usually about six births per year, but more foals are expected this year to offset an ageing population and the deaths and removals of more than 10 horses in 2018. The herd is maintained at between 110-120 horses.

Where do Outer Banks wild horses vanish to in winter?

Where do Outer Banks wild horses vanish to in winter? An aerial survey found out

FEBRUARY 04, 2019 04:35 PM,

UPDATED FEBRUARY 05, 2019 10:17 AM

North Carolina’s wild horses have been known for decades to vanish from the Outer Banks in the winter, leaving visitors to the barrier islands mystified.

On Friday, a survey located much of the elusive herd in the interior of Corolla, at a spot so remote that the herd managers needed a helicopter to reach it.

“We’re talking about an area thick with brush, standing water, mud and thorns,” said Meg Puckett, herd manager for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

“It’s in the middle of the island and it’s only from the air that we could see the trails to it created by the horses, wild pigs and the other animals. It’s a place you would need a boat to reach.”

It’s also a spot where freshwater marshes keep the grass green all year. The aerial survey crew, including Puckett, found the horses in this oasis, happily grazing in knee-deep water.

In the summer, the herd of nearly 100 horses can find that grass more easily near beaches, along roads and even in the yards of tourist condos.

It’s no surprise to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund that the horses found a fresh water marsh in the middle of the winter, but Puckett says it remains a revelation to see how the horses survive in such rugged terrain.

“Their main goal is to stay alive and they are very good at it, very resourceful,” said Puckett. “They have an institutional knowledge of their habitat, passed down from their parents. And their parents learned it from their parents. They always know where to go for food in winter.”

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund and Coastal Helicopters team up for six aerial surveys a year, in part to get a rough count of the herd population and to see where the horses are migrating. The fund is a nonprofit that manages the herd on Corolla.

It’s believed the herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs came to the Outer Banks nearly 500 years ago, and were likely left behind by the Spanish explorers who evacuated after multiple attacks by Native Americans, according to

The two largest herds today are at Corolla and at the Shackleford Banks, which is cared for by the Foundation for the Shackleford Horses.

NC Senator Thom Tillis Introduces Legistation to Protect Corolla Wild Horses

Tillis Introduces Legislation to Protect Corolla Wild Horses



Tuesday, January 29, 2019



Daniel Keylin or Adam Webb | (202) 224-6342


WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act, legislation that would provide responsible management of the wild horse population around Corolla, North Carolina and the Outer Banks. Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives in previous Congresses and has been a long time champion of protecting the Corolla wild horse population.
“A cherished part of our state’s history and an admired attraction, thousands of tourists visit North Carolina’s beaches each year to witness the majestic nature of the Corolla horses,” said Senator Tillis. “This legislation will take the necessary and proper steps in protecting the health and safety of the wild animals and their habitat, while encouraging continued tourism and economic investment for our local coastal communities.” 
The Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of North Carolina, Currituck County and the Corolla Wild Horse Fund to craft a new management plan to care for the wild horses that inhabit the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 
The Corolla wild horses do not exist anywhere else in the world. Their lineage can be traced back to the arrival of Spanish explorers on the Outer Banks in the 16th century. They are Colonial Spanish mustangs that have survived in the wild for the last four centuries and now roam across Currituck County, North Carolina. 
This legislation is supported by the Humane Society and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Corolla Horses OK, But Va. Disease A Concern

Coastal Review Online 1.10.19


COROLLA – The recent deaths of seven Chincoteague, Virginia, ponies from a particularly nasty pathogen found in standing water has put the caretakers of the Corolla wild horses on alert, although so far there is no indication of the disease on the Outer Banks.

“Fingers crossed,” said Jo Langone, CEO of the nonprofit Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which manages the herd. “We haven’t seen any signs here.”

Commonly known as “swamp cancer,” the sickness in the wild Chincoteague ponies was caused by a fungus-like organism in stagnant water that can enter cuts or scrapes, according to a Dec. 31 article in the Washington Post. An infected horse will typically develop large lesions on their legs, belly or genitals. If not caught early, the disease, pythiosis, is usually fatal.

About 100 horses roam freely on the northernmost tip of the Currituck Outer Banks, a 12-mile-long and a mile-wide, ocean-to-sound area bordering the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to undeveloped beach and marshland, the horses’ total 7,500-acre range includes the unpaved community of Carova, where about 200 residents live year-round and thousands more visit every summer.

Heavy rains in the last several years have created especially wet conditions in the horses’ habitat, Langone said, making it impossible for the animals to avoid standing water.

“There’s not much that we can do actively except make people aware about what they can do,” she said.

In an update posted on the Corolla Wild Horse Fund Facebook page Wednesday, residents and visitors in the off-road areas were asked to be on the lookout for any sharp items that could wound the wild horses.

“CWHF is currently working on an informational flyer that will be distributed to property owners on the 4 x4 (off-road area) encouraging them to clean up any debris or trash that could cause cuts or scrapes on the horses,” according to the post. “We will also be distributing examples of what to look for in case of an outbreak (like pictures of Pythiosis lesions) and ask people to call or report any horse they see with open cuts and scrapes, or suspicious wounds.”

Meg Puckett, the herd manager, said that they’ve received numerous inquiries from concerned Corolla wild horse lovers since the first Washington Post article about the infliction in the Chincoteague ponies came out in November.

 “It’s been on my radar for months,” she said in an interview.  “We’re not raising the alarm bells yet, but we’re being proactive.”

Puckett said she has talked in depth with the horse fund’s veterinarian with the Dominion Equine Clinic in Hampton Roads, Virginia, from whom she learned about a new vaccine that has had some success in treating infected horses at early signs of the disease.

But the vaccine, which has not been approved yet by the Food and Drug Administration, does not guarantee a cure and still has limited availability.

That’s why the horses’ caretakers need the public to keep an eye out for wounded or infected horses. Lesions, which are itchy, almost look like a boil – but worse, Puckett said.

“It looks like a big, open sore, basically,” she said. “Just fleshy and gross.”

Until recent years, swamp cancer outbreaks in horses had been mostly confined to the warm and muggy Gulf Coast region. Puckett said she had no knowledge of the disease in any domestic horses in southeastern Virginia or northeastern North Carolina, but she worries about warmer weather and fewer hard freezes in the region and on the Outer Banks creating the same conditions for the pathogen that befell Chincoteague’s ponies.

“Yeah, it’s climate change,” she said. “It’s been hot. It’s been wet. You’re going to start seeing things like this.”

Like the Chincoteague herd, the Corolla horses are a cultural icon rooted in centuries-old maritime history and legendary links to Colonial-era Spanish Mustangs. Both populations are managed with respect to their wild and free state, with mostly hands-off care. For instance, the Corolla horses are not vaccinated at all, Puckett said, although it doesn’t mean they’ll always be ruled out. But the only routine medical intervention the horses currently receive, she said, is non-hormonal birth control for the mares.

Until 1985, there was no paved road to Corolla, where the horses had lived in the wild for centuries. As development increased in the 1980s and 1990s, interactions between the public and the horses spiked dramatically and dangerously. According to the Wild Horse Fund website, between 1985 and 1996, 20 wild horses were killed by vehicles on N.C. 12, the highway between Duck and Corolla.

Eventually, volunteers built a fence on the northern end of Corolla and at the Virginia-North Carolina state line, where a sea-to-sound fence is occasionally defeated by some horses. Langone said that a persistent harem of six horses that kept circumventing the fence were recently relocated to the Horse Fund’s farm in Currituck County. A yearling colt from the group, she added, was just adopted to a new home where two other adopted Corolla horses reside.

The horses at the Currituck farm are being monitored closely, Puckett said. They are also removed from pastures that have not drained after storms.

And even though the wild horses cannot be monitored as closely, she is being extra vigilant and taking the risk of the deadly disease seriously.

“It is a real big concern,” Puckett said. “It makes you worried about what’s coming down the pike.”

We Bought the Farm!

Yep, we bought a farm! The Fund had been leasing the Betsy Dowdy Equine Center, a 31-acre facility in Grandy where our rescued mustangs live, since 2014. Over the summer, we were presented with the opportunity to purchase the property. Rescue and conservation are key components of our mission and we’ve recognized the need for a permanent “off-island” sanctuary for many years. Right now the farm houses 17 rescued horses in varying degrees of rehabilitation. 

Every horse that has to be removed from the wild will now have a stable, permanent home on our farm. It is a peaceful, quiet place where injured, ill, or otherwise suffering rescued horses can decompress, heal, and be slowly domesticated. After that, they may enter into our adoption program or they may live with us forever if they require special care. 

Since purchasing the farm, we’ve started on many improvements that need to be completed before the winter weather sets in. So far we’ve improved our water supply with new hydrants, a new well, and new lines and spigots. We’ve seeded our newly fenced 7 acres, we are planning on constructing a perimeter fence around the entire property, we have updated our electrical system and added new security lighting, and we’ve constructed one new shelter for the horses. 

This Giving Tuesday, you can help us reach our goal of constructing another new shelter so that the horses can use our new pastures through the winter. This will allow us to rotate horses more easily and give our smaller pastures a rest. It also gives the horses a nice change of scenery. The shelter will cost about $5000. 

Your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. Every little bit helps. Think about it – if all 93k of our followers donated just $1 imagine what we could accomplish together! And on Giving Tuesday Nov 27, Facebook and PayPal will match a total of $7 Million in donations. 

Please consider a gift to the horses this holiday season. We thank you for your support!

Rescue Horses on the Farm Benefit from Nature Walks

Now that everything in the woods isn’t trying to kill us (ticks, snakes, poison ivy…) we are able to utilize the back part of our property. There are trails that we’re working on getting cleared, and in the meantime we’ve been taking the horses on “nature walks.” It’s proven to be wonderful enrichment for them, especially those that spent the majority of their lives in the wild. They love to browse through all the underbrush! Yesterday the boys – Buster, Felix, Roamer, Ducky, and Mateo, got to take a walk together. Roamer and Ducky love the wild rosemary that’s growing now, Mateo had fun stomping around in a dead tree, and Buster and Felix seemed to really enjoy all the new sights and smells too. Plus, they all got to interact with each other. It was a fun day.


Dews Island Mares Celebrate First Year on the Rescue Farm

This week we are celebrating the year anniversary of the Dews Island mares coming to live at our rescue farm. It’s been quite a journey! They have taught us compromise, humor, and humility. They keep us on our toes, but their progress (and their hard-earned affection!) has been so rewarding.

You can read more about how they came to us here:

Luna, Little Star, Buttercup, Jasmine, Betty, Bella, and Moxie (aka Utter Chaos), we love you so much! Brownie, you’ll forever be in our hearts and we see glimpses of you every day in your amazing daughters.

Here’s to many more years with these special girls!

The Geography and Horses of Coastal North Carolina

Our little corner of the world has been getting a lot of attention recently, and it’s become clear to us that many people might not understand exactly how our coastline is laid out, and where the different herds of Colonial Spanish mustangs are in relation to each other. 

On the map to the left, you’ll see a red X where there are currently herds of Banker horses living. The following post is a quick overview of the different habitats, herd sizes, managing organizations, and status post-Hurricane Florence. We encourage you to continue learning about these special horses by visiting the linked websites and supporting them in any way that you can! 

The Corolla horses that CWHF manages in cooperation with Currituck County, the state of North Carolina, and US Fish and Wildlife, are located at the very top of the Outer Banks. The horses here have access to about 7500 acres of mixed-use land, and are contained by sound-to-sea barrier fences on both ends. To the south, the fence keeps the horses away from the dangerous paved Highway 12 and the more populated southern beaches like Duck and Kitty Hawk. To the north, the fence follows the state line and keeps the horses from entering False Cape State Park in Virginia Beach. The 100 horses are protected by a county ordinance, but there is no federal protection for them. Hurricane Florence had virtually no impact on this area, though early on we were prepared for a direct hit. 

The Ocracoke ponies are managed by the National Park Service, and can be spotted in the 180-acre Pony Pen off of Highway 12. Until the late 1950s, the Ocracoke ponies roamed the island and were loosely managed by residents and the local Boy Scouts. Their history on the Outer Banks is storied, and the NPS is working hard to preserve and grow the herd of seventeen. You can read more about them here. The Park Service announced shortly after the hurricane that all of the Ocracoke ponies survived with no injuries and no damage to the Pony Pen and surrounding buildings. 

There is a herd of Banker horses on Cedar Island, just south of Ocracoke. It is made up of horses from Ocracoke and Shackleford Banks that roam freely on private land. All 53 horses were accounted for after Hurricane Florence, and are doing just fine. 

Shackleford Banks is the southern-most barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore. There are approximately 100 horses living on the 3000-acre island, only accessible by passenger ferry. The horses are managed cooperatively by the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Foundation for Shackleford horses, and they are federally protected. Officials from the National Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses are in the process of doing a herd count, and while all horses have not been accounted for, the outlook for the herd is positive. You can find more information about the Shackleford horses here

There are also horses living on the Rachel Carson Reserve, which is a series of islands right off Beaufort and adjacent to Cape Lookout. There are about 30 horses living there, and they are managed by the North Carolina Coastal Reserve. These horses are probably very closely related to the horses on the Shackleford Banks, though they have no interaction with each other now due to the formation of an inlet that separated the two areas in the 1930s. Managers from the Coastal Reserve announced recently that all 30 of these horses are present and accounted for since Hurricane Florence. You can learn more about them here

So as you can see, the management of the Colonial Spanish mustangs of North Carolina is quite complicated. About 200 miles separates the herd at Corolla from the herd at Shackleford, so when Hurricane Florence dipped southward at the last minute, the Corolla horses were spared a direct hit while the horses south of here were more in the line of fire. We are all working together to make sure that each organization and herd has everything they need to recover from the storm as quickly as possible, but as you can imagine access to much of the habitat is quite difficult.

These horses are hardy and have survived on our special islands for many, many generations. We are quite sure they will survive for many more. 


Hurricane Florence Media Coverage



Huffington Post




US New & World Reports




The Inquisitr


The Weather Channel


News & Observer






The Epoch Times




WIBW News Now


ABC News


Spectrum News






Charlotte Observer


Durham Herald Sun




USA Today


Daily Mail (UK)




Boston Globe


The Independent


Smithsonian magazine