One of the most beautiful sights on the Outer Banks is the image of four or five Wild Mustangs standing atop a dune silhouetted against the sky. The visual perfectly captures the Outer Banks, its history, and the fragile balance that exists between people and nature.
There are approximately 100 wild horses roaming the 4WD area north of Corolla, usually called Carova for the small village at the state border with Virginia. The horses, descendants of the Spanish Mustangs of the conquistadors, have roamed the Outer Banks since the 16th century. At that time, the rivalry for control of North America between Spain and England was intense and often violent, eventually leading to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Although no one can say definitively how the horses came to the Outer Banks, the most likely scenario was they were left on shore when Spanish explorers boarded their ships after a mapping or exploration mission. Once on shore, it may have been easier to leave the horse where it was rather than try to coax it back to the ship. Suspended in harnesses below decks for weeks at a time, the life of a horse on ships was horrific, and the horse would not have willingly returned to that fate.
The horses thrived on the Outer Banks. According to a 1926 National Geographic Magazine article there were 6000-7000 wild horses roaming the Outer Banks at that time. A number of factors have led to the decline to their current numbers, almost all of it a result of steadily increasing human population and visitation. To protect what was left of the herd, it was moved north of the paved road in 1996.
A trip to see the wild horses is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon. There are a number of outfitters who make trips to the 4WD area for a wild horse tour. Most tours last about two hours. Anyone with a 4WD vehicle can drive along the beach, but remember the speed limit is 30 mph and tickets are issued for speeding. It is also wise to look out for the submerged tree stumps along the shore.
The horses generally gather in what are called harems—one stallion, four-five mares, and maybe a colt or foal. A herd of horses is a number of harems traveling together. On a good day, the horses seem as though they are everywhere. When the weather is hot, they to like to stand at the edge of the surf—probably for the same reason humans wade into the sea . . . to cool off. Tour groups know the rules and are very good about adhering to them. For anyone checking out the horses on their own, there are two very important rules to keep in mind. First—you must remain a minimum of 50’ from the horses. This rule is vigorously enforced by the Currituck County Sheriff’s Department, and they do issue citations for wandering too close to the horses. Second—do not feed the horses. The horses have been doing fine on a diet of native grasses, an occasional wild persimmon and acorns. Apples, melons, and carrots are not part of their regular diet, and those foods can make them sick. In at least in one case, illegal feeding has caused a horse to die.
Genetic testing and physical characteristics have shown that the Corolla herd is directly descended from Spanish Mustangs, so when a harem wades into the surf, or a mare and foal walk by, it is a living piece of the history on the Outer Banks. The herd is managed today by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.