Skip to main content

Banker Ponies: Wild Horses of the Outer Banks

Wild Stallion at Shackleford Banks

Wild Stallion at Shackleford Banks

Wild Horses in the Outer Banks, NC

North Carolina's Outer Banks is home to about four hundred wild horses that roam free in some parts of the popular resort area. The Banker Horse is a tough breed that has survived hurricanes, scorching heat, blood-thirsty insects, and winter storms while living on tough sea grasses and digging in the sand for fresh water. They are descendants of horses brought to the islands centuries ago by Spanish explorers.

Banker Horses

Columbus was the first to bring horses to the New World. He set up breeding ranches in Hispaniola in the late 1400s. Rather than transport horses and their food across the Atlantic, European explorers purchased horses from the Hispaniola ranches to use on their explorations of the mainland.

Luis Vazquez de Ayllon sent three expeditions from Toledo, Spain, to explore the Carolina coast. Records show he brought five hundred men, women, children, slaves and ninety horses in an attempt to establish a colony.

Ayllon and many of the colonists died of fever. The survivors returned to Hispaniola, leaving their horses and livestock behind.

Other explorers who came and then left in a hurry because of harsh conditions, sickness, and poor relations with the Native People repeated this scenario. The horses were considered disposable transportation, not worth the time or expense to take back home.

The horses not only survived, they flourished on the string of barrier islands until, by the 1950s, they numbered in the thousands. They were used for transportation of people and supplies, helped pull in fishing nets, plowed family gardens, and carried midwives on their rounds. North Carolina's development depended heavily on the Banker horses. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were considered an important economic commodity. Regular roundups were held on the islands, called pony pennings. The Bankers were auctioned off to buyers from the mainland who valued them for their heartiness.

The physical characteristics of the Banker are very similar to many Spanish breeds. These horses are compact in size, usually 14 -15.2 hh and weigh about 800-1000 pounds. They have broad foreheads with a straight or slightly convex profile, short backs, strong croups with high to medium-low tail sets, and long silky manes and tails.

Many Banker horses are gaited. Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, who has done extensive research on the wild horses of the east coast writes, "These horses usually have a very long stride, and many of them have gaits other than the usual trot of most breeds. These other gaits can include a running walk, single foot, amble, pace and the paso gaits of other more southerly strains." ("The North American Colonial Horse")

In old writings about the Bankers, they are often described as "smooth gaited."

Corolla wild horse

Corolla wild horse

DNA Tests Show Corolla Horses as Breed Unto Themselves

DNA tests reveal the genetic variant, Q-ac, which is shared by horses with Spanish ancestry, is found in the Bankers. This same variant is found in the Puerto Rican Paso Finos and the Pryor Mountain Mustangs.

According to the report, "Genetic Analysis of the Feral Horse Populations of the Outer Banks," written by Gus Cothran, Ph. D. from the University of Kentucky, "Corolla herd has only 29 alleles, among the lowest number of any horse population." That means there is less genetic diversity among the Corolla group than in any other group of horses. Rather than being feral horses with a mixture of domestic breeds, "they are in effect "a breed unto themselves." This is probably due to their isolation and inbreeding, but when compared to other breeds, the Corolla herd's DNA tests show they closely resemble the old Iberian horses.

The northernmost town of Corolla existed in peaceful harmony with its wild horses for centuries. When the small village became a bustling vacation center in the 1980s, with condos, shopping centers, restaurants and ritzy beach houses, the horses' future was endangered. With a new highway came traffic, and in the first year of the highway's opening, seven horses were struck by cars and killed.

Townspeople organized the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and immediately put into action a carefully thought out management plan. They moved the herd to a less inhabited part of the islands where it is maintained at about sixty horses to protect the ecological balance of the area. It is also the job of the group to prevent horses from accessing the developed areas, and to relocate any "rogue" horses that stray back into town or other private sites.

Mare and foal on Currituck Banks

Mare and foal on Currituck Banks

Ocracoke's ponies are managed by the National Park Service.

Ocracoke's ponies are managed by the National Park Service.

Ocracoke Herd

Another herd lives one hundred miles south of Corolla on Ocracoke Island. These horses no longer roam free but are under the care and management of the National Park Service since the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Tourists can safely "pony watch" from the observation tower next to the fenced pasture. Park rangers sometimes ride Banker horses while they are on beach patrol, after the tradition of the US Life-Saving Service surfmen of the 1800s. In fact, North Carolina's surfmen were the only ones in the country allowed to ride rather than patrol on foot. This was because nearly everyone on the Outer Banks had their own Banker horse. They didn't cost the service anything, and the surfmen could do a better job on horseback.

Several other small islands have small groups of Banker horses. Called marsh tackies or sand ponies by the old timers who share the islands with them, the horses graze in the outlying marshes. The horses have an uncanny ability to move through the mud and mire with ease.

The largest herd of free-roaming wild horses in the state, with about one hundred, lives on Shackleford Island near Beaufort, North Carolina. These horses were the center of controversy when, in 1996, North Carolina health officials put down 74 horses that tested EIA positive. State veterinarians feared the horses would be a threat to the domestic equine population. Horse activists argued that the horses were on an uninhabited island, which provided a natural quarantine area.

The Foundation for Shackleford Wild Horses was organized, and they found a friend in Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr. He introduced a bill to Congress to protect the horses. Now the National Park Service at Cape Lookout National Seashore, in cooperation with the Foundation, manages the Shackleford Herd.

DNA testing helped the Foundation for Shackleford Wild Horses gain government support. This group has set up a studbook for establishing the Banker Horse as a breed registered with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Birth control and adoption are methods used to keep the Shackleford herd and its environment healthy. Some of the adopted horses have been put into private breeding programs. Some of the Bankers have also been accepted into the Mustang registry.

Still, North Carolinians fear for the future of their Banker horses. It is a constant uphill battle as increasing development encroaches on what was once wilderness land. Even public education is a two-edged sword. There is a need for the public to be aware of the horses because they provide badly needed funding. But letting people know about the Banker horses also opens up the possibility of harassment by people in this world who do that kind of thing. Several incidences of abuse, whether out of ignorance or malice, have enraged those who work so hard to protect the horses: a colt was run down and killed by the driver of a SUV on the beach, horses were shot and killed, a horse died of colic after it ate trash from a garbage can, and another was injured when a tourist enticed it to climb the steps of his beach house deck.

With their future so uncertain, these hardly little horses can teach us a lot about perseverance and survival in a harsh environment. It is worth pondering the fact that these horses have survived every obstacle nature has sent them for four hundred years, but it is doubtful they can survive man's idea of progress. To learn more about the wild horses of the east, visit these two websites:

© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith


kk on April 19, 2012:

bola de mensos

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on October 07, 2011:

You can see lots more pics at the sites I gave.

Chloe on October 07, 2011:

Please post more photos on your site

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on September 04, 2011:

The Corolla Wild Horses are all accounted for after hurricane Irene - plus two! When they were out counting they found two horses not on the census who have been hiding all this time.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on June 21, 2010:

They are now North Carolina's State Horse

Tish Schau on September 22, 2009:

One of my favorite scenes in "Nights of Rodanthe" is that of the Bankers running down the beach & I am praying that that scene can be played over & over again for generations to come in real life, not just in this movie. Am hoping that concerned humans & animal lovers will continue to fight to keep Mustangs of every herd alive & prevent any government from destroying these beauties that our living connection with history throughout the world, not only in the U.S.

I am the human mama to a Mustang mare who almost was auctioned after stupid AZ law said she must be sent to AZ Livestock, 1 of the guiltiest in horse slaughter in this country..Holly actually cribbed (chewed) her way through a Juniper wood corral seeking water & company of the horses in this corral since Holly seemingly was displaced by her own family band of wild horses. Today, though I left her untrained, I find her to be the most intelligent breed of equine there is, still can be trained to ride even at her age of 10 years old, if I chose; she is far more intelligent than my other horses & far more willing to love her human mama, me. Perhaps in my lifetime the wild horse again can again remain free and protected from the danger of government slaughter as they send such animals to be bludgeoned, throat slit to bleed to death in facilities in Mexico & Canada to be used for food for European foods & the scraps used for dog food...It is a cruel way to die for any beast, but regrettably more horrible when it is an animal who is gentle, loving & trusting as the horse...Some thoughtless owners of unwanted horses are also doing this injustice to their own animals...God, what has this world become? We certainly need the horse more than the building of more concrete jungles on the lands where these majestic creatures once roamed free & now are wanted for meat and people's greed

Dan Spaventa on July 24, 2009:

Thank you for the story. They are one of the things that set the Outer Banks apart for most other areas you can visit.