Part 1 in a series: How would you picture roving harems of wild mustangs on the beach at North Carolina’s Outer Banks? We visualized equine muscle and sinew stampeding across sun-drenched sand, hooves flashing to fend off predators and rivals, fiery eyes, flaring nostrils. We were wrong!
Nothing seems particularly wild about these diminutive descendants of Colonial Spanish horses left behind by conquistadors exploring the Atlantic Coast of North America some 500 years ago.
Technically, they are feral horses, free-roaming steeds from domesticated stock. At Currituck Banks they roam the dunes, maritime forest and neighborhoods of stilted beach homes, placidly munching on sea oats, acorns and lawns. They occasionally meander to water’s edge and stare wistfully out to sea – pining for Spain, perhaps. The native grasses have left them with a bit of a paunch. Not very sexy.
Still worth a visit? Yep! Finding them is half the fun.
Several herds of the so-called Banker horses populate the dunes and scrub in remote areas of the otherwise suburbanized beach communities of the Outer Banks. We arrived days after Hurricane Florence blew through, however, and the horses at Currituck Banks, just north of Corolla, comprised the only accessible herd that week.
Since the horses simply roam public lands and private back yards, a number of vendors offer tours. We chose the Corolla Wild Horse Fund tour, figuring the nonprofit organization that works to safeguard the herd for future generations might offer something special. I suppose special is relative, but we toured as a party of four plus the guide in a closed SUV. Other tour groups we saw were belted into long rows of open seats exposed to the elements. You choose.
The tour began where Highway 12 ends and Currituck Beach becomes a fickle roadway of sand that our guide said can become impassable at high tide. The horses once ranged further south but now are corralled by a fence near the terminus of the pavement to better protect the wandering Bankers from vehicle traffic.
For a while we feared we wouldn’t see any of the roughly 100 horses that comprise the herd. Our guide’s slow-rolling four-wheel-drive SUV, tires half flattened to avoid sinking into the sand, rolled and weaved past packs of sun worshipers, beach combers and fishers – but no horses.
We continued on, jouncing into the water-logged back alleys that double as dunes in neighborhoods of stilted homes above the beach and lining the freshwater canals at Carova. Plenty of horse poop. No horses.
Until we spotted one – then two, then three, then four. Most of them noshing thoughtfully on the sparse lawns of rambling beach houses.
These feral beasts are beautiful. Short and compact – some have five instead of six lumbar vertebrae – with coats of brown, bay, dun or chestnut. The ruddy dun mustangs with blonde manes are particularly stunning. And they are fearless, with no natural predators. Humans are required to keep a distance of 50 feet. Cattle egrets apparently get a special pass, as they shadow the horses closely to dine on insects stirred from the brush by their mustang buddies.
Photography was a challenge, as we were not allowed to leave the vehicle to roam the private yards where the horses grazed. Fortunately, our tour guide was adept at maneuvering the SUV to be sure we all had opportunities to photograph each horse from our respective seat. Not ideal, but we made do, with the hopes we find a few on the beach during the drive back.
Hope waning on the last stretch of beach before we hit pavement, we finally scored our Kodak moment – a harem of four mustangs at water’s edge, staring foal-eyed out to sea without a worry or a care.
Coastside slacking, you might say. Feral wanderers after our own heart.
NOTE: This is the first in a blog series about our adventures at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We visited one week after Hurricane Florence blew through.