The History of the Outer Banks Wild Horses

The origins of the Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs date back nearly 500 years, making them the earliest settlers of the Outer Banks, and some of the earliest residents, second only to the local Native American tribes. While historical journals, documents and ship’s logs hint to the wild horses’ origin, it’s hard to determine one specific set of events that led to their presence on the Outer Banks.

It’s possible that the horses were left behind by one of the first explorers to the North Carolina Coastline, a Spanish explorer named Lucas Vasquez de Allyon. In 1521, Vasquez de Allyon commissioned his commanders to explore and colonize the entire American eastern seaboard, and at least a handful of these commanders landed somewhere along the North Carolina shoreline. While many modern historians believe the majority of these initial explorations happened somewhere around Cape Fear, (due to multiple references to the large saltwater river), it’s possible that these expeditions led them all the way to the Northern Outer Banks.

54 Wild Horses Roam on & Around Cedar Island

Outer Banks Wild Spanish Mustangs

Unfortunately for these first explorers, the local Native Americans did not appreciate the intrusion, and a number of attacks and minor wars broke out along the North Carolina coast, prompting the Spanish to abandon their early ramshackle settlements and leave their livestock behind. Though remote, there is a slight possibility that this is the origin of some of the NC banker ponies, which are scattered from the Cape Lookout National Seashore to Ocracoke Island and all the way to Carova.

A more feasible origin story dates back to just 60 years later, during one of Richard Greenville’s expeditions along the North Carolina coastline. Greenville was an English commander overseen by Sir Walter Raleigh who made regular routes along the coastline from the West Indies, to the early colonies of North Carolina and Virginia, and back to England. The late 1500s were a time of English expansion and colonization, as well as trading and commerce in the southern West Indies, (even among the Spanish who still frequented the coastline but were technically at war with England), and as a result a number of European ships would pass by the Outer Banks waters.

In June of 1587, Greenville was leaving the West Indies with a healthy cargo of sugar, food, and livestock, (including Spanish mustangs), and was heading up the coast along with a small fleet of ships to carry the supplies, in order to deliver the goods to the newly established English colonies. Historical records indicate that Greenville and his small fleet had trouble along Cape Fear, and then on the outskirts of Portsmouth Island, with the ships catching in the dangerously shallow Diamond Shoals. One ship in particular, the Tyger, was lost to the battering waves and the livestock floated ashore or were lost at sea.

While these cases are two of the most documented rationales for the wild horses’ presence, they certainly aren’t the only explanations. A number of local experts believe that the horses, which are clearly descendants of Spanish Mustangs, were washed ashore by Spanish or English shipwrecks in the 1500s. This theory is based on the appearance of the horses themselves, as well as early 1700s to 1800s accounts of Outer Banks visitors or settlers who spotted them and made note of the horses in their journals.

For example, English explorer John Lawson who explored the North Carolina Coastline in the 1710s, mentioned them in his reports, noting that “The horses are well-shaped and swift. The best of them would sell for ten or twelve pounds in England. They prove excellent drudges, and will travel incredible journeys.”

Regardless of their actual roots, one of the allures of the wild horses is, and has been for centuries, their mysterious appearance on the Outer Banks. Whether they are intrepid survivors who indeed “traveled incredible journeys” from ancient shipwrecks off the coastline, or the descendants of livestock that were left behind by the earliest of colonists, the unclear ancestry of the Outer Banks Wild Horses is clearly part of the allure of their story.

Outer Banks Wild Spanish Mustangs

Wild Horses Eating Marsh Grass & Algae

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are a group of feral Spanish mustangs that live in several islands of the Outer Banks and just south of the Virginia border. They are believed to be descendants of shipwrecked horses from hundreds of years ago.

Where are the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

Three herds of the Outer Banks Wild Horses live on the multiple islands that are in between the town of Beaufort and Cedar Island North Carolina. These islands are mostly private with no residents and can be seen on horseback rides through Cedar Island  is very remote and isolated.

Are the Outer Banks Wild Horses on the beach?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are often spotted along the beach, walking by the oceanfront. They can also sporadically be seen in the sand dunes, and in wooded neighborhoods in the Cedar Island area.

How can you see the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

Visitors who head to the 4WD beaches north of Outer Banks may encounter the Outer Banks Wild Horses along the beach, in the dunes, or in quiet residential neighborhoods. There are also a number of tours that frequent areas where the wild horses roam, and which utilize 4WD Jeeps and other vehicles to find the horses.

Are there tours to see the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

A number of 4WD tours to see the Outer Banks Wild Horses are available, which include privately owned businesses based in Outer Banks, as well as seasonal tours that are offered by the Outer Banks Wild Horse Fund and Museum.

Where did the Outer Banks Wild Horses come from?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are thought to be the descendants of shipwrecked or deposited Spanish mustangs from the 16th century. 1500s explorers such as Lucas Vasquez de Allyon in 1521 and Richard Greenville in the 1580s may have landed on the northern Currituck Banks and / or lost vessels or livestock in the northern Outer Banks area.

How long have the Outer Banks Wild Horses been on the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are believed to have landed on the Outer Banks in the 16th century, and may have arrived as early as 1521 via an expedition led by Lucas Vasquez de Allyon.

Where can you find wild horses on the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are located in the northernmost beaches of the Outer Banks, in the 4WD area that’s just north of Outer Banks. Wild horses, also known as Wild Ponies, are also found on Ocracoke Island, and can be viewed at the Ocracoke Pony Pen just south of the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry docks.

Are the Outer Banks Wild Horses descendants of shipwrecks?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are most likely the descendants of shipwrecks from 16th century explorers. Recent DNA testing has shown that the herd does share genetics with Spanish mustangs, which were common passengers on exploratory vessels in the 1500s.

Can you pet the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

It is illegal to approach, touch, or pet the Outer Banks Wild horses. Visitors must remain at least 50 feet away from the wild horses.

Can you feed the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

It is illegal to feed the Outer Banks Wild Horses, and doing so can be dangerous to their health. When these feral horses ingest apples, carrots, lettuce, or other non-local foods, they can develop colic and digestion problems.

What do the Outer Banks Wild Horses eat?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses have been eating a native diet of sea oats, coastal grasses, acorns, persimmons, and other area vegetation for hundreds of years.

Can you take photos of the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

Visitors are free to take photos of the Outer Banks Wild Horses, provided that they stay at least 50 feet away from the horses at all time.

What should you do is you see a Outer Banks Wild Horse?

Visitors should keep a safe distance from the Outer Banks Wild Horses if they encounter them on the beach. Though they look docile, these horses are inherently feral, and should not interact with humans.

Do Outer Banks Wild Horses show up at vacation homes?

Vacationers at Carova and 4WD beach area vacation homes regularly report seeing the Outer Banks Wild Horses in their backyards or neighborhoods, especially in quiet locations.

Are there vacation homes near the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

The Carova area has a wide array of vacation rental homes along the beaches and in the wooded soundside region, where the Outer Banks Wild Horses regularly make appearances.

Can you adopt a Outer Banks Wild Horse?

While visitors can’t physically adopt and / or take home one of the Outer Banks Wild Horses, they can sponsor a horse through the Outer Banks Wild Horse Fund and Museum, which is a local organization that supports the horses.

How many Outer Banks Wild Horses are there?

There are approximately 100 Outer Banks Wild Horses on the northern Outer Banks. This count is determined every fall by helicopter surveillance in the northern Outer Banks and Carova areas.

How do you help support the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

Horse fans can help support the Outer Banks Wild Horses via the Outer Banks Wild Horse Fund and Museum, which is a local organization that helps support and tend to the local herd. The Outer Banks Wild Horse Fund accepts donations, and offers special programs including wild horse tours, and “adopt a horse” initiatives.

Is there a museum about the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

Visitors can find out more about the Outer Banks Wild Horses with a visit to the Outer Banks Wild Horse Fund’s Museum, which is located in the heart of Outer Banks.

How do you find out more about the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

Visitors can learn more about the Outer Banks Wild Horses via the Outer Banks Wild Horse Fund. This local organization has a museum in Outer Banks, as well as website with in-depth information about the Outer Banks Wild Horses. In addition, educational tours are available through the Outer Banks Wilde Horse Fund, as well as privately owned tour companies.

How are Outer Banks Wild Horses different from regular horses?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses, which are descendants of colonial Spanish mustangs, have a few distinguishing characteristics. Their tails are low and set on a sloping croup, their faces are narrow, and their ears are curled at the tip. They are also narrow throughout the chest, and have five lumbar vertebrae as opposed to six, which is much more common in modern American domestic breeds.

Who takes care of the Outer Banks Wild Horses?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are not owned by any individual or organization, but they are supported by the Outer Banks Wild Horse Fund, whose mission is to protect, conserve, and responsibly manage the horses that roam freely on the northern Currituck Banks.

Why do the Outer Banks Wild Horses travel in groups?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses are territorial and stick to areas that they know, and that are close to where they were born. Within the herd, there are often male leaders that form their own individual “families” of horses, which in turn appear in groups along the shoreline.

How far do the Outer Banks Wild Horses roam?

The Outer Banks Wild Horses stick to the northern beaches of the Currituck Banks, where there are no paved roads and little development. Within this miles-long area, they may travel anywhere from 15-25 miles per day.