North Carolina's Wild Horses

The Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks

     The wild Shackleford mustangs are accessible only by boat, isolated on a nine-mile long barrier island between Beaufort Inlet and Cape Lookout. These hardy descendants of Spanish Mustangs have the free run of the island, which has no human habitation. Visitors ferrying out to the lighthouse on Cape Lookout can often see the mustangs grazing at the eastern end of the island, as in the photo at right. Vacationing boaters can land on the island to explore and see the horses. Another option is to take a passenger ferry from Beaufort to reach Shackleford, and then get picked up later in the day by the same ferry. There are also tour and charter services that can provide both transportation and guide services which offer the best chances of finding the horses.

     The history of the Shackleford wild horses is the same as that of the Ocracoke and Corolla wild mustangs. Like the Ocracoke "Banker" ponies, the Shackleford horses have often been referred to as ponies because of their size, but they are true horses. DNA studies prove they are descended from the Spanish mustangs brought to the Carolina coast by explorers beginning in the early 1500's. Turned loose from shipwrecks, or left behind when explorers had to flee failed attempts at colonization, they spread out all along the barrier island chain as they grew in numbers.

      They have survived in the wild, isolated on Shackleford and other coastal barrier islands away from the mainland for almost half a millennium. Unlike Ocracoke and Corolla, Shackleford Banks has never been suitable for any significant human population, which has left it virtually pristine to this day. As part of the National Park Service's Cape Lookout National Seashore park, only day visitors and overnight camping are permitted, keeping Shackleford free of dwellings, electrical service or any other trappings of civilization.

      More than 100 horses call Shackleford home, where they brave the elements of nature, including hurricanes, just as they have for hundreds of years. The Foundation for Shackleford Horses manages the horses in cooperation with the Park Service. Occasional adoption of selected horses from the herd is the means used to maintain the herd size between 110 and 130 horses.

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