The approximately 100 Banker Colonial Spanish Mustangs that roam freely on the northern-most reaches of Currituck County are, by far, one of the most popular attractions on the Outer Banks.

The herd — which has been part of the landscape for nearly 500 years — lives on an 11-mile stretch of beach and 7,500 acres designated as a permanent sanctuary.

The horses have been deemed a cultural treasure by the state of North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe.

“So many people who visit us believe that the Corolla horses are protected by government authorities — either federal or state or both. Unfortunately, they are not — even though they are the state horse of North Carolina,” says Jo Langone, Chief Operating Officer of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

“We have a local county ordinance that calls for no feeding and no luring or enticement with a minimum of 50-feet distance from all horses. That is their only legal protection, and it also acts as a protection for the public,” she says. “But, unfortunately, it is only the Fund that holds tightly to their mission to protect, conserve, and manage these horses.”

On June 8, a mare was struck and killed around 10:30 p.m. by a vehicle whose driver was reportedly driving too fast along the four-wheel drive beach. The mare’s stallion remained at its mate’s side throughout the night.

It was a devastating loss to the staff and volunteers of the CWHF, which was founded in response to the deaths of 20 horses killed by vehicular traffic between 1985 and 1996.

The mare killed in June was the third loss that month for the herd: Chris, a foal, died the Sunday before the mare was struck and killed, and Trooper — who had been kicked by another horse and suffered a broken rib cage and collapsed lung — had to be euthanized the day before the mare was found dead.

“Chris died June 3, then Trooper got kicked and had to be euthanized on June 8 — broken rib cage and collapsed lung — and then the mare was hit,” Meg Puckett, herd manager, says. “As for Trooper, he was probably in his 20s. He is the one that had the terrible neck wound last summer, but healed up on his own. He hung out with some of the younger bachelors, and I think he just couldn’t keep up with them anymore. It was a catastrophic kick. Our vet came up to Carova, and we were able to humanely euthanize him before he suffered for too long,” Puckett said. “They say bad things come in threes, so I hope this is it.”

The death of the mare serves as a vivid reminder that these wild beauties have the right of way. Drivers must be alert and aware of their surroundings while driving on the beach.

Vehicular traffic is not the only threat to the herd. The horses are feral, but because they are docile, people can’t wrap their brains around the fact they shouldn’t be approached, Puckett says.

Well-meaning people feed horses carrots and apples, which are actually quite dangerous to the herd: Such foods can cause painful colic and may result in death. Wild horses cannot eat any food that is not from their natural habitat of beach grasses.

Initiative underway

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund recently launched its “No Feed, No Approach” educational initiative to help educate the public about the dangers of human interaction with the wild herd.

The initiative has been a community-wide effort, with residents and businesses donating time, money and services to the public outreach campaign:

  • Terry Douglas, a horse-loving graphic artist from Richmond, Virginia, donated her services to design a billboard reminding people of the dangers of feeding wild horses;
  • Residents Karen and Mac Quidley donated a structure on their private land to be used as the billboard;
  • Payment of the vinyl wrap for the billboard message was provided by CWHF volunteer Kelly Wilkes, and its installation was donated by Robert and Carol Givens of RO Givens Signs;
  • East Carolina Radio and MAX Radio of the Carolinas are airing public service announcements expanding on the billboard message about not approaching or feeding the wild horses;
  • Duck and Corolla retail merchants are donating time on their marquees this summer to promote the wild horse educational messaging; and
  • Property owners in the 4x4 area are posting yard signs to reinforce the no feed/no approach messaging: The signage is available at CWHF’s museum gift shop in Corolla.

Langone says she is overwhelmed by the support of the community — and the Corolla Wild Horse Fund needs that continued support.

“We appreciate all of the many ways that visitors and locals alike can help support the Fund and its mission — by becoming a member, by making a donation, by learning about their story and helping us raise awareness of their threatened status, by taking an educational excursion and becoming a member, by supporting us when visiting our gift shop and more,” Langone says. “We are appreciative of all big and small efforts because we realize all have a positive impact in our work.”

History 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.

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, and that’s why Corolla Wild Horse Tours are so popular.

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.

The nonprofit offers several educational excursions:

  • Mustang Champion: a 3-hour educational excursion with a wild horse specialist. Excursions generally depart at 8 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. $60 adults, $35 ages 12 and younger;
  • Mustang Defender: A private excursion with a CWHF wild horse specialist for up to two people. To schedule, call (252) 453-8002. $360;
  • Charter Membership: A private excursion for up to four p
  • eople. Call for details about this level membership and its benefits. $750.

All educational excursions include a one-year membership with the Fund, and all proceeds directly benefit the horses.

“The excursions allow the visitor to learn about this unique herd of wild horses, their origins, their history of coming to this area, their survival of almost 500 years and the significant events to the herd over that time, as well as what the Fund’s work has been — and is — in order to fulfill our mission to protect, conserve and responsibly manage the Corolla wild horses,” Langone says.

“We start with a 15-minute overview and orientation and our excursion to see them lasts almost 2- and ¾ hours. Our visitors are able to ask questions and have a dialogue with their guide throughout this time. We utilize SUVs and only take six individuals per vehicle. These are the same vehicles that we utilize when monitoring the herd. In fact, our guides also record their sightings and location of the horses as they proceed. Often our visitors take part in this collection of valuable data for the Fund.”

Outer Banks photographer and gallery owner Eve Turek has been turning to the herd for inspiration since she first moved here in the mid-1970s.

“I’ve been trying to remember the first time I saw the horses of Carova. I think it must have been after I moved here in the mid-’70s, when the harems could still be seen around the Currituck Lighthouse. The dunes north of what is now the town of Duck were still mostly undeveloped,” says Turek, who owns Yellowhouse Gallery and its sister gallery SeaDragon in the Waterfront Shops in Duck.

“I’ve had stallions at full gallop come thundering past as I sat in our parked truck, photographing out the window. Even on the soft sand, the unshod thud of the horses racing by kicked my own heart rate up to match that rhythm.”

Turek says seeing the wild horses, their nostrils flared and their eyes wide with fury at close range through the safety of her vehicle, “made me glad I was sitting inside. Even when I leave my vehicle, I usually try to stay fairly close, and I am always closely watching the whole herd for signs of restlessness. Even though I try to be vigilant, I have been startled by a stallion suddenly wheeling around and charging at another stallion at the fringes of his harem.”

The herd may seem docile, she says, but when two stallions get into a confrontation — as does happen — “It is a brutal, loud, harrowing experience. …I tell visitors all the time, these are not your typical barnyard horses. They are used to fighting to protect their harems and their territory from intruders, and that includes us,” Turek says.

“If I sense unrest, I am almost always praying that there will be no serious injuries to the herd. I try to keep a peaceful heart within, no matter what I am photographing, and I do believe that wild animals, including the horses, can sense the energy that surrounds them.”

For people like Kelly Wilkes, who is a Corolla Wild Horse Fund volunteer, helping to protect these majestic beasts is both a privilege and a heart-felt responsibility — and when a member of the herd is killed or has to be euthanized, it is a wound that cuts deep and leaves a scar.

“Being guardians of the wild herd obviously has its highs and lows. The way I’ve decided to process it, which is still a work in progress, is I will turn my sorrow into action. The work and commitment to the herd never stops. It’s an active responsibility around the clock, every day of the year,” Wilkes says. “Everyone is so incredibly dedicated at CWHF. It’s really a calling, not a job. For my small part, I intend to do as much as I can, and I invite more volunteers to join us. The CWHF is a very welcoming, open group of folks.”

The trio of deaths in June, Wilkes says, “only spurs me on. We need to keep moving forward promoting the health and welfare of this proud herd. Through the highs or lows, it is a soul-satisfying endeavor.”

As a volunteer, Wilkes has chased and corralled horses that needed to be returned to the sanctuary, but her primary responsibility is educational outreach, “so locals and tourists have a better understanding of the “do’s and don’ts” with wild horses and CWHF literature, in general. … I was amazed how many people did not know that wild horses can only digest natural beach grasses.

“Apples and carrots and snacks of any sort will often give them colic and can kill them. I thought about that robust discussion for few days, and I decided this was a huge educational opportunity for locals and tourist alike. I sat down and put together some educational initiatives — a bit of a marketing plan to roll out — and I emailed the ideas to Jo and Meg. They replied quickly really liking a lot of the ideas that we are cultivating now into the community.”

Wilkes even turned her own birthday celebration into a fundraiser for the nonprofit, raising more than $300 in three weeks.

“I know how much the CWHF needs every donation they get. I just posted it and stated any donation of any size is all I want for my birthday,” Wilkes says.

“I posted it, fearful I would not make my $200 goal, but I exceeded by goal and in three weeks raised $320 dollars. All from friends through Facebook. It was so easy, and it was wonderful to see such generosity. It really warmed my heart. Best birthday gifts ever.”

Honoring the herd’s contribution

The horses — simply by being strong enough to survive and thrive for nearly 500 years — have given so much to Outer Banks residents, visitors and the area’s economy, Turek says.

The least we, humans, can do is to keep them safe right where they belong.

“I’ve heard locals and visitors alike advocate for relocating the horses even further away, perhaps to a ranch where they can run freely, albeit in much less space per harem, and remove them from the wild altogether. This would be a sad fate to me for two reasons,” Turek says.

“First, these horses have survived in the wild for hundreds of years. It would be a shame if they lose their freedom because humans can’t figure out how to peacefully and respectfully coexist with them,” she says.

“Second, I believe we will act to preserve only what we care about, and typically we care more about what we have experienced personally than about what we may learn only through others’ research.”

As a child, Turek read Marguerite Henry’s children’s novel inspired by a real-life Chincoteague Pony, which was foaled in domesticity in 1946. She wants more for future generations.

“I want generations to grow up not merely reading ‘Misty of Chincoteague,’ as I did as a child, but also able to see wild ponies and wild horses for themselves,” Turek says.

“A world without wildlife is a poorer world, and we owe it to generations to come to preserve as much as we can. For those of us on the Outer Banks, that includes being mindful of the laws, and just plain common sense, when it comes to the wild horses here.”

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