A visit to the North Carolina Outer Banks would not be complete without seeing the wild horses that roam the sandy shores. After climbing the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, it was time to head over to the headquarters of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund located down the street in Corolla Village. I had pre-booked a tour online after doing research on the various companies that offered wild horse tours. I highly recommend booking with the Corolla Wild Horse Fund (CWHF), which is a not-for-profit organization that was formed in order to protect the horses. This group is responsible for maintaining the herd and working with the state and government to preserve the horses and their heritage, and money from the tours goes directly back into herd management.
Wild horses on the beach might strike some as strange; as a former resident of Nevada, I’m used to seeing wild horses in a much different setting. The wild horses that dot the shores of the Outer Banks are unique. The protected herd of Corolla are Colonial Spanish Mustangs, specifically referred to as Banker Spanish Mustangs. The horses that roam the beaches of Corolla today can be genetically traced back to lineage of mustangs from the 1500’s, and are the only type of their breed left.
How did horses come to be on the Outer Banks? When Spanish conquistadors originally set out to explore and settle on the Outer Banks, they brought with them men, supplies, and horses. After facing attacks by local Native Americans, the conquistadors abandoned their attempts at settling and returned home. No longer needing the horses, they simply left them behind. Further stories lead us to believe that more horses made their way to the Outer Banks after shipwrecks forced the livestock to be lost at sea or find land. Several accounts have placed the horses on the Outer Banks as early as the 1500s, with written documentation dating back to the 1700s.
The horses can be spotted in small herds in various parts of Corolla and Carova, wandering up to the Virginia state line. To see the horses, one must have a four wheel drive vehicle with high clearance due to unpaved roads and soft sand. The tour with CWHF lasted over an hour, and gave each person the opportunity to see the horses up close and personal. The tour guide knew exactly where the horses tend to migrate during various parts of the day, and gave a running commentary on the history of the Outer Banks and an insider’s glimpse of life on Carova Beach.
It is illegal to feed or approach the wild horses – although they have been around for hundreds of years, they are far from domesticated animals. The tour lets you get as close as possible from the safety of the vehicle, and photo opportunities are plentiful. The majority of the tour is spent in Carova, which is the northernmost Outer Banks community and only accessible via unpaved beach. Carova is not so much town as it is a grouping of several small neighborhoods. The majority of Carova is inhabited only during popular vacationing seasons, as few live in isolated Carova year round.
Those who live in Carova are used to seclusion, sand dunes, and horses. The horses wander in small herds throughout Carova, feeding on sea oats, grass, and other edibles. It is not uncommon to see a horse lounging around a house, or seeking shade in an open garage of a vacation rental. Unlike wild horses in other parts of the country, who are constantly at odds with the land and other animals for proper sustenance, the Banker Spanish Mustangs are well fed. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund counts the herd number yearly, and has determined the ideal population size that can be naturally sustained. If the population is too small, the horses are at risk of extinction via disease, injury, or inbreeding.
If a wild horse is injured or is found to be in need of intervention, the horse is removed from the herd and moved to a rehabilitative facility, where the CWFH nurses the animal back to health. Once a horse is removed from the wild population, it cannot be reintroduced. Once healthy, the CWFH adopts the horse out to a qualified, pre-screened adopter. CWFH reserves the right to return the animal to their care at any time, if a home visit after adoption finds the animal not in ideal condition or care.
The time spent on the tour was simply magical. Crossing over into Carova beach gave an immediate sense of seclusion, and we were able to spot wild horses fairly quickly. While the horses we saw were grazing among sand dunes and in neighborhoods, it is not uncommon to see the horses on the beach itself, or splashing in the waves on a particularly hot day. Bachelor herds (small groups of all male horses), a lone stallion, and family herds were seen during our time on Carova. As a long time equine lover, it was one of the highlights of my Outer Banks experience.