What Makes a Banker Horse special?

Seems like a rhetorical question, doesn’t it?

The Banker horses of the Outer Banks are unique for a number of different reasons. They are the state horse of North Carolina—a high and well-deserved honor. They are listed as critically threatened by the Livestock Conservancy, and they are recognized as an invaluable cultural resource for Currituck County.

But what is it about the Banker horses that bring on these accolades? A big part of what makes them special is their long, rich history on the Outer Banks—that is undeniable. But the Banker horses display certain physical attributes that are unique to them, and that sets them apart from other breeds.

The horses that live in Corolla are Colonial Spanish mustangs. They are commonly referred to as the Banker strain, a classification that sets them apart from other strains of Spanish horses like the Florida Cracker and the Marsh Tacky. As indicated by the names, geography played a large role in the identification and development of these types of horses.

Banker horses are short in stature, but strong in ability. They normally stand around 13.2 hands high, and weigh anywhere from 600 pounds upwards to 1,000 pounds. In the Corolla herd, we see both convex and concave heads, indicating Iberian and old Arabian influence. Banker horses have short backs, with sloped hindquarters and a low-set tail. Some even have one less lumbar vertebrae than most domestic horses, which is a very primitive characteristic. They are very sound horses and have oval-shaped cannon bones in their legs which, in addition to the other physical traits, afford them the ability to carry heavy loads for long distances. Some Bankers will even display an ambling, or pacing gait.

These mustangs were bred by the Spanish to be hardy, easy keepers, and that has not changed over the last 500 years. In the wild, they live off salt grass, sea oats, acorns, and even invasive aquatic plants. In captivity, they do not require much more than a good quality hay and access to fresh water, and often their diet has to be restricted because they are able to thrive on so little. Bankers are known for being quite docile and levelheaded, and in captivity are generally easy to train. This pragmatic attitude is one of the reasons they have survived on the harsh Outer Banks for centuries.=

Perhaps most importantly, the horses here display the genetic blood variant Q-ac. This marker is only found in horses that are descended from ancient types of Spanish horses, and is very easily lost through genetic drift. Today, it’s found only in certain lines of the Paso Fino breed, the Pryor mustangs of Montana, and the Banker horses of North Carolina.

Meg Puckett is herd manager for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. Prior to joining CWHF in July 2016, she was an education outreach and volunteer management coordinator, and handled media and public relations for The Virginia Zoo in Norfolk.

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