Monday, January 15, 2018

The Corolla wild horses

We most often associate free-roaming horses with the American West, but did you know there are multiple populations of wild horses that live along the Atlantic coast? In the Southeast there are the Chincoteague Ponies of Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, the Cumberland Island horses in Georgia, and four separate groups in North Carolina: the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, Beaufort's wild horses, the Ocracoke Island Banker ponies, and the wild Spanish mustangs of Corolla.

The Corolla horses are a living legacy of European and American history, descendants of Spanish mustangs brought to the Carolina coast by European explorers and colonists in the 1500s. The small, sturdy horses have survived for centuries in the salt marshes, dunes and maritime forests of the Outer Banks, at one point roaming freely along the entire length of the coastal barrier island chain.

The terrain and inaccessibility of the islands insulated them from human contact for nearly 400 years, but with the increase in popularity and development of the barrier islands, the horses saw a proportionate decrease in territory available for them to roam. The wild horses were pushed into isolated havens, one such group making their home in the islands north of Duck.

After highway NC12 was completed from Duck to Corolla in the mid 1980's, the traffic, increase in population and explosive development proved dangerous for the horses. The decline in population was a result of car accidents and the proximity to humans; the horses are used to a natural diet found in the marshes and forests, and consuming other food can cause illness and death. Once free to roam from the village of Corolla north to the Virginia border, the remaining wild Spanish mustangs were eventually given protected status and moved north to the mostly undeveloped land on the northern-most reaches of Currituck Banks. Organizations such as the Corolla Wild Horse Fund monitor the health of the herd and work to educate the public to keep the Corolla horses safe.

Seeing the wild horses isn’t as easy as taking a stroll on the beach. Although their habitat has shrunk, it is still a large area to cover - stretching eleven miles from a the fence north of Corolla to the NC/VA border fence, bounded on the East by the Atlantic Ocean and on the West by Currituck Sound. In addition, the horses are often grazing inland, hidden away in the marshes and forests.

To see the Corolla mustangs you need a four-wheel drive vehicle and a bit of luck. Highway NC-12 ends at the south horse fence, and proceeding north the beach becomes a highway of sorts. The hundreds of beach homes scattered throughout the area are connected to the ‘beach highway’ by a series of sandy paths, roads only in the loosest sense. It helps to have a local along to navigate this maze of routes, as they know where the horses often congregate and which areas are closed to vehicular traffic.

We opted to book a tour with one of the companies that take visitors up the beach and onto the back roads, Corolla Outback Adventures. The family business has been in operation since 1962, when the Benders began offering tours north from Kill Devil Hills at a time when there were no paved roads in the region. The tour company has exclusive access to certain areas, increasing the odds of seeing the horses in their natural habitat.

The amount of visitors to Currituck is another reason to visit the Outer Banks off season. Despite the chilly November temperatures there was a steady stream of vehicles headed up and down the beach – I can’t imagine how crazy the traffic must be in the summer. This is not an area for beachcombing or playing in the surf, and the high density of vehicles was definitely a turn-off. It got better once we turned off the beach, but the area is not the wildlife area I had imagined; instead it is dotted with beach houses, new construction going up everywhere. The first horses we saw were grazing in people’s yards, and we listened to stories of visitors waking up to the sounds of the wild horses taking shelter under their rental home in inclement weather.

If we were to do it all again we might rent a house in Carova Beach, renting a 4x4 vehicle for a few days and spending our time driving the sand roads and searching for horses. On the other hand it was easy enough to make the trip from our hotel in Duck, and the beach there didn’t pose the hazard of vehicular traffic – a definite plus in terms of keeping the kids happy. One day spent up in the northern reaches of Currituck seemed enough; we saw the wild mustangs in the early afternoon (which gave it a chance to warm up a bit for the tour!), and then spent the rest of our time in Corolla, climbing the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and then watching the sunset over the sound.

All in all, our guide was knowledgeable on multiple subjects and had the added experience of being a guide and resident for many years. In addition to seeing over a dozen horses we also visited the maritime forest and enjoyed a view of Currituck Sound and the marsh. When it was time to head back south to Corolla and paved roads, our gaze and thoughts remained north – on the dunes of Currituck, the blue waters of the Atlantic, and the Corolla wild mustangs.

1 comment:

  1. We've never been to the Outer Banks area --but I've read so much about the wild horses that I do want to go there sometime...

    I have been to Cumberland Island and have seen those horses before --but that was YEARS ago...

    Thanks for sharing.



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