Often, there’s a fine line between folklore and fact, and the truth usually lines somewhere in between. According to folklore, 200 years ago many ships carrying majestic Colonial Spanish Mustangs wrecked off the coast of The Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina. The strongest of these equine swam ashore and started the wild horse colony of Corolla Island on the northern point of the OBX. Roaming here today are feral equine that’ve tolorated the impact of humans for two centuries.
Wild horses are the reason I drove 17 hours to North Carolina; I wanted a glimpse of these elusive descendents. Turns out, they’re not so elusive. But they are majestic, and according to DNA tests, many are Mustang descendents.
The OBX is a popular (read: crowded) tourist destination in the summer thanks to the beaches, and is notoriously quirky too, boasting a range of notorieties including the site of the first flight by the Wright Brothers, the final resting place of legendary pirate Black Beard and of course wild horses. Even the remote, four-wheel drive area the horse have been pushed to (thanks to urban expansion) is littered with two-footed sun-seekers.
But I’m here, and first on the agenda: the wild horse tour. The animals freely roam the Corolla beaches and people are to stay 50 feet away by law (though this is not always respected). Accessible to the beach is via four-wheel drive vehicle only – the beach is the only official ‘road’ – hence the popularity (and necessity) of Hummer and jeep tours.
Being the only party of two in a car of six people (with Wild Horse Adventure Tours) means we get the front seat of the Hummer, beside the laid-back driver, Tommy Colorado, who keeps one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on a Red Bull at all times during our rock and roll tour over sand dunes and around sinkholes in search of wild horses along the coast of North Carolina.
These animals, though seemingly mythical, are by no means hiding. We find mares and fouls easily, along side of trails, in tall grasses and even in the driveways and carparks of the few beach houses dotting the sandscape. We don’t always see him instantly, but the stallion is not far behind keeping an eye on his brood. Near the end of our tour, we spot a stallion standing at the edge of the beach’s bank, back-lit by the setting sun. “Good thing we’re the only ones who spotted him,” someone in our Hummer says sarcastically. At least a dozen cars including tours like ours have slowed down or stopped on the sand below looking up the silhouette of the creature seemingly unaware of the scampering below, but well aware of every move.
We’re also privy to a rare spotting of Jack the mule standing in the backyard of one of the beach houses. No one’s sure how he got here, but he spends his time weaving in and out of herds entertaining mares with little or no repercussion, and our driver seems mildly envious of Jack’s carefree lifestyle.
All the wild horses are proudly protected and supported by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. The non-profit’s mission is simple but remarkably challenging: “to protect, conserve, and responsibly manage the herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs roaming freely on the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks, and to promote the continued preservation of this land as a permanent sanctuary for horses designated as the State Horse and defined as a cultural treasure by the state of North Carolina.”
The organization runs a small wild horse museum in Old Corolla Village, Corolla, that’s fifty percent information centre and fifty percent gift store/fundraiser for the fund. Volunteer staff is determined to tell everyone who comes through the door about the horses’ plight and give out cards to send to the state’s governor, who is not supporting the horses.
Some consider the horses feral or an invasive species on the beaches claiming they are impacting natural grasses and plants. However, after 200 years of grazing the grass is still there, and the real threat to the landscape is the encroaching asphalt and condo buildings.
While I’m not surprised the promise of development gets a lot of attention, the extent of struggle to keep this colony healthy, free and genetically diverse without support from larger government entities is surprising considering what these animals represent. Two hundred years ago, the strongest arrived on these shores, struggled, survived, thrived at one point, and are now a significant part of the cultural identify. They embody the American dream: arriving in a new world and over-coming adversity thanks to tenacity, determination and survivalist instinct. What’s not to admire? Frankly, they should be on the flag.