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The Outer Banks, a narrow curl of barrier islands that hugs the North Carolina coastline, are the beaches of postcards and photograph albums. With over 200 miles of white, sandy beaches, swaying sea oats, and gentle surf, these islands are just remote enough to ensure uninterrupted peace and quiet, but just convenient enough to be worth the trip. What sets the Outer Banks apart from other East Coast beaches, however, goes beyond the temptations of unspoiled oceanfront. For hundreds of years, alongside the typical island wildlife of seabirds and fiddler crabs, herds of wild horses have made the Outer Banks their home.
How the horses arrived on the islands remains a mystery. Though today’s Outer Banks attract thousands of tourists each year, the islands haven’t always been known for their hospitality. With jagged shoals extending for miles out to sea, notoriously hostile weather patterns, and a constantly shifting shoreline, many a ship has met its demise off the Carolina coast, earning it the nickname The Graveyard of the Atlantic. With this in mind, some speculate that the horses—many of which bear the genetic and physical markings of Spanish Stallions—arrived on the beaches of the Outer Banks as a result of a seafaring misfortune, the cargo of sunken Spanish galleons washed ashore. Others believe that the horses are the last survivors of unsuccessful European attempts to colonize the islands, since both Spanish and English explorers spent much of the sixteenth century scouting the Eastern Seaboard for suitable places to plant their flags.
Regardless of how the horses came to be residents of the Outer Banks, their survival in the often harsh and unforgiving environment has been nothing short of miraculous. There are no constants on the islands; everything from food to water to the very ground beneath the horses’ feet is constantly shifting. The legendary storms and hurricanes of the eastern seaboard continually reshape the islands, carving out and redefining where land and water meet, and forcing the herds to adapt to variable resources. Not surprisingly, the horses have become adept swimmers, wading out into the surf to escape the islands’ merciless insects and traversing newly formed narrow waterways between islands in pursuit of food and water. When the latter is not readily available, the horses have learned to look beneath the sand, digging with their hooves until they reach the water table, then waiting for the heavier saline layer to drop to the bottom and a lens of sweet, fresh water to rise to the top.
The horses’ tenacity has not gone unnoticed by the island’s two-legged residents. Before World War II, annual pony-pennings were used to round up the horses, which were coveted for use in everything from Coast Guard patrols to polo matches. It was not long, however, before those who traveled to the Outer Banks for the round-ups began to appreciate the value of the island in its own right, and though the horses had proven to be survivors, they were no match for the march of progress: well-meaning vacationers, highways, and high-speed vehicles soon threatened the horses’ very existence.
Fortunately, residents have realized that the horses, while perhaps not natives to the islands, are a cultural resource to be preserved. Organizations such as the National Park Service and the Corolla Wild Horse Fund have made great strides in maintaining the herds, designating isolated islands for the horses to roam freely or penning off corners of inhabited islands where they can safely run. Thanks to their efforts, visitors will be able to continue to enjoy the magic and the mystery of the wild horses of the Outer Banks for years to come.