Windswept, sandy beaches, multi-story beach houses, beach towns with quirky names like Nags Head, and laid-back beach vibes are what people usually think of when they think of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. An image of Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs is not one usually associated with the Outer Banks. Most picture herds of mustangs galloping across wide open land out west, not horses grazing on marsh grass by the Currituck Sound.

Yet in the northern part of the Outer Banks, a small herd of around 75-95 Corolla Wild Horses, who are classified as Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs, still roam free.

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In beautiful shades of bay, black, and chestnut, these small, 600-800-pound horses roam the Outer Banks like they have for centuries, sometimes on the beaches, but most often on private land in a 7,544-acre area of mixed-use land of private, state, and federally owned land north of the town of Corolla, NC, and south of the Virginia state line.

I had a chance to visit and photograph these wild horses on a recent trip to the Outer Banks. It was quite an experience to be around these small horses, who behave similar in some ways to domesticated horses, such as by being obsessed with eating - grazing a majority of the day - yet are completely free to do whatever they want, roaming wherever they please. The different bands have their own sense of whose territory is whose, paying no heed to human notions of territory, seeing private property as just another place to graze, and make their organic fertilizer deposits wherever they feel is convenient.

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There are several unique things about the Corolla wild horses due to their isolation on the Outer Banks. One is how clearly they exhibit features of Colonial Spanish breeds, including having shorter backs, with fewer vertebrae than other breeds of horses. Another unique feature is the lack of the gray coat color in the Corolla herd. I noticed that all the horses I saw were either black, bay, chestnut, or palomino, but didn’t think much of it until I read Bonnie Gruenberg’s book, The Hoofprints Guide to The Wild Horses of Corolla. In the book she explains that the dominant allele for a solid color coat to turn gray has been completely lost from this population. Another which is unique even among wild horses is that they all share the same great-great- (many greats) grandmother horse. DNA testing in the 1990’s revealed that all the Corolla horses are descended from the same maternal line. This is quite unusual - their wild horse cousins to the south, the Shackleford Banks horses, are descended from three different maternal lines. A negative downside of this isolation is that inbreeding leads to a more likely occurrence of genetic defects, such as locked stifles.

While the Corolla wild horses are considered pure colonial Spanish mustangs, exactly how they came to be roaming the Outer Banks is uncertain. They were either abandoned there by Spaniards, traded by the Spanish to the Native Americans / American Indians living there, or swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish ship.

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There have been historical narratives and folk legends of the small, strong, remarkable horses in the Outer Banks since colonial times. A teenage girl named Betsy Dowdy, made a 51-mile ride from Currituck Banks to Hertford, NC, on “Black Bess”, her “Banker Pony” during the Revolutionary War to warn of British troops coming. “Banker Pony” is a historical term used to refer to a Corolla wild horse or their cousin wild horses, the Shackleford Banks wild horses. The local lore of Betsy and “Black Bess’s” ride exemplifies the stamina, spirit, and hardiness of the Corolla wild horses as well as that of the local people. There was no bridge from the Outer Banks to mainland North Carolina at the time of the Revolutionary War, so their journey included not only galloping bareback across the dunes in the pitch dark, cold winter night, but also crossing several waterways.

The Corolla wild horse population has drastically declined in the past century from an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 horses roaming freely across the Outer Banks in 1926, as featured in a National Geographic article, to the current estimated 75-95 Corolla horses still living in the wild today. Increased development and tourism in the Outer Banks is a double-edged sword. It presents challenges for the wild horses as more land is developed. It also increases the potential for adverse horse - human interactions as with more humans in proximity to the horses, sadly wild horse fatalities from being struck by vehicles have gone up. However, increased development and tourism also helps the local economy. Tourism can also increase awareness of and interest in protecting the Corolla wild horses.

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A great way to safely observe and photograph these horses is by taking a guided tour. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund as well as a few private companies offer guided tours. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund is a non-profit (501(c) 3) organization whose mission is to protect, conserve, and responsibly manage the herd of Corolla wild horses. They are the only organization managing the herd, which involves breed conservation, contraceptive darting, soil and plant studies, DNA testing, emergency response, necropsy, fence and cattle guard maintenance, habitat preservation, advocacy, and educational programs such as guided tours. They have staff and volunteers on call 24/7 all year round to respond to any equine emergencies.

Photos courtesy of Jillian Regan Photography, LLC