Meg Puckett starts her day patrolling the 11-mile stretch of beach and the 7,500 acres of the northern-most reaches of Currituck County on the Outer Banks.

As herd manager for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, Puckett is on the front lines of protecting the approximately 100 Banker Colonial Spanish Mustangs that roam freely on the land, which is designated as a permanent sanctuary for horses defined as a cultural treasure by the state of North Carolina.

As such, she serves as a sanctuary patrol officer and keeps tabs on the horses, looking for any signs of distress, illness or injury. She also handles the emergency needs of horses on the beach and works closely with equine medical personnel. She rounds up, trailers and transports horses through challenging beach terrain when necessary. She prepares and presents educational events for the public. She trains wild horses rotated out of the herd and readies them for adoption. She maintains the Corolla Wild Horse Fund’s trailers and vehicles. Oh, and she mucks out stalls.

It’s a Herculean task — and she loves it.

“I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector my entire career,” says Puckett, who stepped into the role in July 2016, after a stint at The Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, where she worked in education, volunteer management, and media/public relations. “I also grew up in the area, and the Corollas were the first exposure to horses I ever had. They’re the reason I developed a lifelong love for horses, and they’ve always meant a lot to me.”

In late April, the wild horse tours — one of the most popular tours on the Outer Banks — resume, and Puckett is ready to meet and greet the crowds.

“My favorite thing to do is to talk to people about the horses and their history here on the beach. I love connecting with young people who are horse-crazy — that was me 30 years ago, and I hope that I can positively influence other kids to get involved in local history and conservation.”

The horses are feral, and federal laws are in place to protect the horses, but because they are docile, people can’t wrap their brains around that fact. It’s up to Puckett to help them understand.

“When people see a tiger in a zoo, they instinctively know that the tiger is wild, even though it is living in captivity. But horses are viewed as domestic animals by most people, so it’s hard for them to differentiate between the horses on the beach and the horses in their barn at home,” she says. “We must manage them like wild animals, which is much, much different than managing domestic horses – and the same respect people show for the tiger in the zoo needs to be shown for the horses on the beach.”

History meets ecology meets nature

The Banker Colonial Spanish Mustang is descended from Colonial Spanish horse breeds, such as the Pryor Mountain Mustang and Paso Fino. It is small – averaging 14 hands, or 4 feet 8 inches tall, in adulthood — hardy, and has a docile temperament.

“The Banker horses are as much a part of the landscape here as the dunes and the ocean,” Puckett says. “The Currituck Outer Banks is one of the last places you can see these horses in the wild. There’s another herd at Shackleford, but besides them, that’s it.”

Historians offer two scenarios as to the origin of the wild horses of Corolla.

Some believe the horses were left behind by a Spanish explorer named Lucas Vásquez de Allyón, who led an expedition of the area in 1521. Others maintain the horses were aboard the English ship Tiger — flagship of a seven-vessel fleet under the command of Sir Richard Grenville — when, in 1585, it ran aground along a cluster of shifting, underwater sandbars called Diamond Shoals, causing significant damage. The horses swam to shore, and once on dry land, the Banker ponies scattered.

The mystery of how the horses came to be part of the naturescape of the Outer Banks is part of the appeal, Puckett says, and that’s why Corolla Wild Horse Tours are so popular.

“We see such a large influx of visitors in the summer, and it can be very challenging to keep everyone educated about the laws —no touching or feeding the horses — and why it’s important to follow them,” she says.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund tours are educational experiences where trained guides tell visitors about the history and ecology of the Currituck Outer Banks, and how the horses fit into that story, she says.

“Visitors learn about the horses’ habitat, the challenges they face, and the work that the fund does to protect and preserve the horses.”

Cheryl Knowles of Kerrville, Texas, spent 10 days in Carova — a secluded area on the North Carolina-Virginia border — with her extended family last summer.

Like many vacationers to the Outer Banks, the group strolled the beach under a periwinkle blue sky in search of sea glass and shells, scanned the ocean waves for signs of dolphins and sat near the tide line heaping piles of wet sand into makeshift castles for crabs.

But unlike those who rent a house anywhere else on the Outer Banks, the Knowles party awakened each day to find horses outside their door.

“It was the one part of the trip I couldn’t stop talking about when I returned home,” says Knowles, who has been riding her whole life and even competed in rodeos. “They are so free, yet so tame. It seems so natural that they have the freedom to go wherever they want, without any restrictions.”

The barrier islands known as the Outer Banks are a magical place, Knowles says — the pirate lore of Blackbeard and his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge; the mystique of The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island; the pristine dunes; the romance of the lighthouses; the just-from-the-sea fresh fish; the history of flight; and more.

But the Colonial Spanish Mustangs are a reminder of just how hearty one must be to tame the Outer Banks and make it a home. For more than five centuries – through hurricanes, scorching heat, harsh winters, bloodthirsty mosquitoes and human intrusion – this strong breed has survived by eating sea grasses and digging in the sand for fresh water.

Knowles’ mother, Wilma Cale, says the memory of the Outer Banks wild ponies is one she’ll carry with her, wherever she may roam.

“Seeing them was different and thrilling,” Cale, now 93, says. “The horses looked so happy — so very happy — and free.”

Thanks to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and the state of North Carolina, Cale says, “they will thrive.”

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