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    A Wild and Magnificent Treasure—Corolla Wild Horses Update

    July 14, 2023

    The Corolla Wild Horses may be staging a comeback. Or at least, they’re not quite ready to become the stuff of a hazy past. Recently a mare and her foal were spotted on one of the many uncharted marsh islands in the northern Currituck Sound. Herd managers are confident that neither the mare nor the foal had been counted.

    Those islands are so isolated and remote that there is a good possibility that there are more hidden horses on them.

    There have also been five foals born this year, not including the foundling. That brings the herd population to over 100, probably 102 or 103, although herd managers are quick to note precise numbers simply do not exist. Aerial surveys are notoriously imprecise, and the horses live in a heavily forested, marshy terrain filled with innumerable islands where horses can happily live and never be seen by a human.

    Wild Horse Family Corolla Outer Banks

    That’s good news for an iconic symbol of the Outer Banks, which is a truly unique breed of horse. Genetic testing strongly suggests that Corolla Wild Horse Herd is a direct descendent of the mustangs of the Spanish Conquistadores.

    There is, to be sure, genetic material from other breeds—even, it turns out traces of Shetland Pony. That may have come from some Shetland ponies that lived in the Corolla area in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Nonetheless, there is very little outside genetic influence in what has been found.

    The horses are remarkably well-adapted to their environment. So well adapted, in fact, that they are considered a land race breed—defined as a genetically related breed that has adapted unique characteristics to live in a specific environment. That’s a scientific way of saying the Corolla mustangs are horses and could breed with any other horse, but no other horse could live in their environment.

    And it’s been the way for some time.

    In 1860 Edmund Ruffn, a Virginia plantation owner toured coastal North Carolina and his book Sketches of Lower North Carolina, and the Similar Adjacent Lands is a remarkably detailed description of antebellum life in coastal North Carolina.

    Of the banker horses, as what are now called the Corolla Wild Horses were referred to at that time, he writes, “These horses are all of small size, with rough and shaggy coats, and long manes. They are generally ugly.”

    “Long acclimation and subjection for many generations to this peculiar mode of living, has fixed on the breed the peculiar characteristics of form, size, and qualities, which distinguish the ‘banks’ ponies,’” he noted and made a point of observing that “…to introduce horses of more noble race…” would be doomed to failure.

    “Such horses…if turned loose here, would scarcely live through either the plague of blood-sucking insects of the first summer, or the severe privations of the first winter,” he wrote.

    The evidence of how well the herd is adapted to their environment becomes quickly apparent watching them for any length of time. These are animals that thrive on beach grass and sea oats. People familiar with domestic horses are clear on what would happen if a horse was taken from a pasture and left to forage on the Outer Banks.

    The horse would starve to death; there is simply not enough caloric content in the vegetation found on the beach to sustain them.

    Although the organization that manages them is called the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, the fact is, the herd is considered feral, not wild, meaning it is an introduced species that was domesticated at one time.

    Nonetheless, after some 400 years of living on their own, observers have no doubt at all that the behavior of the herd is consistent with wild horse behavior. That is an important point that must never be forgotten.

    Corolla Wild Horse on the Beach

    Stallions maintain harems—that’s what it is called—that will include two to perhaps seven or eight mares. Competition for the mares is intense, and especially during spring and early summer, which is typically the breeding season for the herd, battles between stallions are intense, violent, and fast-moving.

    Anyone who is in the way of the battle stands a very good chance of being injured and hurt badly.

    Because they are wild animals, approaching them carries extraordinary risk. It is important to note they are not gentle creatures, nor are they intentionally cruel or vicious. But because they are not habituated to humans, actions that a domestic horse might accept or feel were nonthreatening, a wild horse may view it in a very different way.

    Keep in mind that even though these are small horses, they still weigh four to five times more than a typical adult human being. These are also horses noted for their strength and stamina.

    The horses regularly take a dip in the ocean in the summer. The most likely reason is to cool down and to get away from the biting flies that breed in the marshes to the west.

    There is a temptation to approach the horses enjoying the beach. That is dangerous. A domestic horse would certainly realize that a human is no threat to a foal; there is no assurance a wild horse will feel the same way. It is also possible that a stallion will see human interaction with his harem as threatening.

    Either way, it could end very badly.

    Currituck County has an ordinance mandating a 50 distance from the horses. That is good common sense, and yes, County officers have written citations when people are too close.

    The Corolla horses are a magnificent part of the Outer Banks, and seeing them in a natural setting is thrilling. It is something to be treasured and preserved, and the best way to preserve this treasure of the Outer Banks is to allow the herd to be wild and free.