Even from a distance, the images of wild Cumberland horses etched themselves into my mind’s eye.
I only discovered Cumberland Island, Georgia because I visited Florida’s Amelia Island that’s 18-miles long and three miles wide and a half hour drive from the Jacksonville International Airport. I was there to experience one of Florida’s lesser known vacation cites – easily navigated, free from Disney-style theme parks with a dash of Keys island eccentricity. Amelia Island is also the only place in Florida where you can ride horses on the beach and that, of course, was my first goal.
Then someone directed me to the harbor-side boat on a flat pontoon style craft. Normally, I’m hesitant about boats – waves and water movement are not my friends – until someone told me that about one hundred feral horses roam Cumberland Island and have done so for more than 300 years … to various degrees of the enthusiasm. (Some call them an evasive species, but by that definition, so are we). Thankfully, most people have more emotional attachment to these majestic animals than they do to unsubstantiated theories of marshland over-grazing.
They’re now a feature of this conservation land, part of the National Park Services since 1972, and have been protected from intervention since the 1990s. The island can only be accessed by ferry. There’s only one business here – a four-star historic Inn owned by Carnegie family descendents – and visits to the park are limited to only a few people a day.
But you can see the island easily from the boat.
The not-to-miss Amelia River Cruise & Charters two-and-a-half hour boat ride led by the quirky Captain Pajama Dave grazes the edge of Cumberland Island actually part of the state next door. As playful Bottle-nose dolphins swim alongside the boat, you also learn about the region’s history and easily view Osprey, Pelicans and Great Blue Heron.
But it’s the Cumberland horses I wanted to see and when I did, I almost tear up – watching the majestic horses, most about 15 hands tall and a blend of centuries of odd breeding and history. Their exact lineage is debated but these are likely descendents of horses belonging to 18th century English settlers. The equine then mixed with Tennessee Walkers, Paso Finos and Arabians in the late 1800s. Like pockets of wild horse colonies in North America, theirs is a story of survival, reverted instinct and a fearless avoidance of humans, whom they tolerate but don’t yield to.
Fortunately for the boat tours, the horses like grazing in open spaces along the coast, feeding on salt-coated sandy dune grasses (some say the source of hypertension in the horses whose lifespan is shorter than their domesticated cousins). Their grace and comfort in these tall grass and treed surroundings is enchanting. Moving in small herds, usually under the watchful eye of one stallion, a few primarily bay and chestnut mares casually stroll (one with a foal at her side) never looking up or noticing the awestruck tourists on the boat watching their every move, occasionally taking distant – very distant – photos.
We’re voyeurs into their world, a world not dependent on our hay supply or rules, a world free from saddles, bridles or even fences – only the surrounding sea water keeps these equine confined. They freely roam the property of the Greyfield Inn and a few other decaying remnants of other wealthy mansions on the island, now half burnt to the ground. It’s inspiring to think about these animals defying the odds, reverting back to self-sufficient status, living, walking and breeding freely as symbols of emancipation possibilities.
The horses are aware that we are floating along the shores, yet are both uninterested and unperturbed by our presence. No humans live on the island full time; there are no roads, streetlights or phone lines. Their only contact with people are a few hikers a day, some patrons of the 16-room inn and gawkers leaning over boat rails to get a better view of what the world might be like if humans abandon their stations and left the livestock to fend for themselves, maybe more successfully than we sometimes like to believe is possible.