It’s June of 1561, and the fleet of Ángel de Villafañe is searching the coast of North Carolina for a suitable location to establish a colony when a hurricane strikes. Two of the ships flounder and sink to the depths.
In the panic on deck, horses break free. They are stronger swimmers than their human handlers and they make it to shore, finding solid footing on a narrow strip of sand and scrub grass on what is now the Currituck Banks.
This scenario is all speculation. Ángel de Villafañe was a Spanish explorer who was off the Outer Banks when a hurricane struck his fleet in 1561, and we know two of his ships did indeed sink. But there is no way to verify if there were horses on those ships. If so, there is no way of knowing if they survived or if our wild horses came ashore at an earlier or later date.
What we do know about the wild horses of Corolla is that they carry a direct genetic link to the Spanish Mustangs of the Conquistadors. They are a rare breed–the original Iberian horses from which they are descended no longer exist and evidence suggests they are the most direct link.
At one time the herd was much larger, ranging across the entire Currituck Banks. But as development intensified in Corolla, loss of habitat and collisions between horse and car brought their numbers down. To protect the herd, all the horses were moved north of the paved section of NC 12 and today around 110 horses range on the 7,500 acres stretching up to the Virginia border.
The herd is managed by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit founded in 2001 to protect the horses and their habitat.
They are a unique herd and genetically similar–almost identical–to the other wild horses of the east coast barrier islands. They are the last herd to remain running free, and the only herd on the eastern seaboard that is not penned in and monitored by federal law and officials.
Although a part of the Currituck Banks for almost 500 years, their continued presence is considered controversial. Federal officials with US Fish and Wildlife, who own much of the land in the Carova area, feel overgrazing by the herd is contributing to a loss of habitat and food for migrating waterfowl. They also cite the loss of vegetation raises the risk of accelerated erosion and unstable land.
The counter argument points out that the horses have been a part of the Outer Banks ecology since the 16th Century, and migratory waterfowl have continued to come to the Currituck Sound over that entire time period, so any erosion or retreat of the beach has remained within historic norms.
USFW has taken the position that the herd size can be no larger than 60 horses. Yet, geneticists universally have noted that is too small a number to maintain genetic diversity and state that the current number is barely adequate at best.
Legislation introduced by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) would have instructed USFW to maintain the herd between 110 and 130 horses. The bill (HR126) passed the house unanimously in June of 2013 but has languished in the US Senate.
On a positive note, the NC Legislature has recognized the Colonial Spanish Mustang as North Carolina’s state horse, and there are a number of local regulation governing interactions between horses and humans. When exploring the northern beaches, please be advised that for the safety of our wild horses, people must remain 50 feet away from any horse, and they are not to be fed.