Corolla Horses OK, But Va. Disease a Concern

Coastal Review Online 1.10.19
by Catherine Kozak

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.


Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other

The fence that separates Virginia and North Carolina was installed by volunteers in the early 2000s, and has held up remarkably well. However, it stops short of the sound because of the difficult, marshy terrain. For an intrepid horse, getting into Virginia is certainly possible, but over the past 15-20 years there have been very few instances of that happening.

In January of 2018 CWHF began receiving calls about a group of horses that were making their way around (or up, over, or through) the northern barrier fence and into False Cape State Park in Virginia. There are many reasons why this was unsafe for both horses and humans, and while we hoped that maybe it was just a one-time exploration, we were pretty sure that the horses were establishing patterns and territory up in Virginia.

The horses—four mares, a stallion, and a yearling colt, were moved back to Carova several times, and once even trailered to the southernmost part of the refuge and released, but they continuously made their way back up into Virginia. The stallion is young, and this group includes what we believe is his first foal and the first mares he was ever able keep, so he is very protective and territorial. We believe that he was moving away from the pressure of other stallions, and of course the fact that there was lots of green grass in the state park influenced his behavior too.

CWHF worked with the folks at False Cape and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to return the horses to North Carolina and figure out solutions to the fence problem. It was decided that the fence needed to be extended by about 1600 feet, which would require hiring a contractor with equipment that could be operated in the swampy marsh. Our mission is, first and foremost, to keep the horses wild, in their natural habitat, and we were hoping that this could be the case for the six that were starting to call Virginia their home. Unfortunately, the timing just didn’t work out.

There was big concern from the officials in Virginia that the horses would make their way into the populated areas of Virginia Beach. It would be several weeks before construction on the fence could start and in the meantime, the horses were deemed a nuisance by the Department of the Interior and we had no choice but to allow them to be removed and brought to our rescue farm. While they are no longer wild, at least they are now safe and in the Fund’s care.

The yearling colt is Mateo, who was born in April of last year. We named his father Lucky Duck (Ducky for short) after he got caught up in the cattle guard but luckily survived the incident. His mother is Virginia Dare, and the other three mares are Ocean Pearl, Bonita, and Kitty Hawk. 

Mateo has been adopted by a wonderful family who already has two other rescued Corolla horses, along with a few retired domestic horses and a mini donkey. He’ll be living on a big, beautiful, hilly farm just outside of Lexington, Virginia. 

As for the rest of the family, they will be staying at our rescue farm for the foreseeable future. We plan on keeping Ducky as an Ambassador horse for educational outreach, and also a breeding stallion for our captive herd. Bonita was diagnosed with Lyme disease not long after she arrived, so she’s being treated for that and showing some signs of improvement. Kitty Hawk and Ocean Pearl have already been saddled and worked in the round pen, and we’re looking forward to getting a rider on them both! 

Virginia Dare is the boss mare, and we’ve been taking it slow with her. She demands respect and space, and we’re happy to give it to her. She did an amazing job taking care of Mateo during their escapades, and she deserves an easy life now. Virginia is the mare who accepted orphaned foal Chris in June, and kept him company for his short time with us. She’s a very special girl. 

Here are some photos of their adventures around Carova, Corolla, False Cape State Park, and even down to Duck one day. 

And here are some photos of the horses once they came to the rescue farm. 

For now, all of the adult horses will be staying at the farm. We hope that some of them will make great candidates for our adoption program in the future, but for now we plan on continuing their training and domestication. Want to be a part of this? You can sponsor Ducky, or see all the other ways to help support the Fund like becoming a member or making a one-time donation.  

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


Hurricane Florence Update 9/15/2018

Wild horses in Carova this morning, enjoying an overcast breeze and some green grass.

Hurricane Florence Update 9/14/2018

Here on the northern Outer Banks we are breathing a sigh of relief today. There may still be some coastal flooding over the weekend but nothing worse than a regular storm or nor’easter. These photos were taken this morning. As you can see, the horses are doing their normal thing – grazing, socializing, and wondering what us crazy humans are all worked up over.

With that being said, please keep our friends to the south in your thoughts. Inland portions of eastern NC are facing catastrophic flooding. Our hearts go out to them and we will post information on how you can help in the recovery efforts over the coming days, weeks, and months.

Thanks to everyone who reached out and offered support and well wishes over the past week. The Banker horses are lucky to have all of you at their backs. If you heard about these special horses for the first time recently, we hope that you continue to follow us as we work to protect and preserve these critically threatened cultural treasures.

We will keep posting updates throughout the weekend, but please rest a little easier knowing the horses in Corolla were spared the brunt of the storm

Hurricane Florence Update 9/13/2018

Wanted to give everyone an update from the rescue farm – we are fine! It’s just now starting to rain a bit and the horses are wondering what all the fuss is about. Water troughs are full, we’ve got generators on standby, plenty of hay, and there are three of us staying here on site with them through the storm.

The storm has shifted south of us and we are no longer facing a direct hit. We are in no way letting our guard down, but we have to say we are breathing a little bit easier this morning. At the same time, we are sending good thoughts and positive energy to our friends south of us, especially the horses at Shackleford and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses.

CWHF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit with a full time staff of just four people. If you would like to help with the care and protection of the horses, a donation to the organization would be very much welcomed and appreciated. We have 18 rescued mustangs in our care, in addition to the 100 horses living in the wild.

Thank you for the support! We will do our best to keep everyone updated throughout the storm.