The Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks

One of the allures down the Outer Banks is the wild horses at Shackleford Banks. Truly a sight to see, these majestic creatures can be seen roaming the shoreline and make their home in the maritime forests of the remote island for shelter. Viewing these horses should not be missed during your visit to the Crystal Coast.

Where did they come from?

Shackleford Horse 6-12-2014Like other kinds of horses, the ones on Shackleford Banks were brought to North America by Europeans during times of exploration. How the horses ended up on Shackleford Banks though, remains disputed. Some believe that the horses today are descendants of the horses that survived shipwrecks in the 16th century, while others believe that the horses were let go to lighten the loads of Spanish ships that ran aground. Whichever theory you believe, one thing is for sure, those horses made their way to the islands of what is now the Cape Lookout National Seashore.  These herds are genetically different from those such as the western mustangs and paints found in the southern regions of the United States with their genetics being traced back to horses from Spain. There is only one other area in the United States with mustangs with the same genetic makeup and that’s in an isolated population in Montana’s Pryor Mountains.

How are they maintained?

Federal regulations have been strict in ensuring that these horses remain wild and have little to no interactions with people whatsoever. Feeding, touching, teasing or frightening the horses, or any other wildlife at Shackleford Banks is illegal and could disrupt the herds’ wellbeing. Completely self-sustained, the horses survive on the marsh grounds feeding on grass and various vegetation. For water sources, they sustain themselves off of ponds and pools filled with naturally occurring fresh or brackish water, however they will dig to create their own water sources when they sense rain or dewy mornings.

What’s life on the island like?

Shackleford Horse 6-12-2014 (2)Like other wild horses, the ones at Shackleford Banks will group together and divide amongst different bands and harems. Calf, also known as “bankers” typically roam with a harem consisting of their “dam” or mother, other mothering mares and a stallion leader until it is old enough to leave and join another harem or start a band (no pun intended). To keep the population on the island healthy and thriving without disruption, wildlife biologists will issue contraception to mares to ensure their healthy development and overall stability of population (about 100 horses).

How do I see them?

Shackleford Banks is the southern-most barrier island in the Cape Lookout National Seashore and is only accessible by ferry or boat. Once you get there, feel free to roam the island to see if you can catch a glimpse of them grazing or galloping along the coast. Because they are wild, it’s recommended that you stay a safe enough distance away given that horses could become frightened and unstable. Binoculars or zoom lenses (for photo enthusiasts), are a good idea to view the horses without putting yourself in harm’s way. These horses have also sometimes (rarely) been known to approach visitors. Nevertheless, the horses mainly keep to themselves and stay occupied along the dunes and marshes. There is no “best time” to catch the horses out in the open, however, horses in general tend the graze during cooler temperatures of the day (morning, evening).

Looking to check out a guided tour of Shackleford Banks to check out the horses? Currently there are two tours by the Crystal Coast Ferry Service and the Port City Tour Company. Both offer opportunities to see the horses, go shelling, fishing or hiking.


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