Some call them cultural treasures. Others call them survivors. Meg Pucket calls Corolla’s wild Colonial Spanish mustangs miracles: “The Outer Banks are barrier islands, and they are not an easy
Some call them cultural treasures. Others call them survivors. Meg Pucket calls Corolla’s wild Colonial Spanish mustangs miracles: “The Outer Banks are barrier islands, and they are not an easy place to live — for anyone — but these horses have thrived for 500 to 600 years.”
Just north of town, paved road peters into a sandy path. Here, wild Colonial Spanish mustangs in shades of sorrel, chestnut, black, and bay trot freely around. They roam the more than 7,000 acres that are protected for them. These Banker ponies, originally shipped across the Atlantic by Spanish and English explorers, wander the dunes and marshes, munching on sea oats and wading into shallow waves.
“No one knows how they have managed to adapt so beautifully to their island home,” Pucket says. “We do know, however, that these living treasures need the protection and support of the whole community, and all of its visitors, to continue to flourish.”
As herd manager for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund (CWHF), Pucket leads the charge for a group of locals who are doing just that.
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On the 31-acre rehabilitation farm, about 10 miles southwest of Corolla in Grandy (on the Currituck County mainland), CWHF hosts Mustang Mornings every Wednesday in the summer. Today, a group of visitors gathers to learn more about CWHF’s mission to protect, conserve, and manage the herd of wild horses.
Rapid development of the Outer Banks and northward expansion of roads threatens the wild horses’ natural habitat. People have been developing the wild land for decades — one of the main reasons a group of locals banded together 30 years ago to create CWHF.
Not only does the dedicated staff and volunteers closely observe the herd, but they also intervene in emergency situations and maintain the rehabilitation farm for horses that must be removed from the beach.
Rescued horses cannot return to the wild, which makes the decision to remove them agonizing. Pucket describes the stressful removal of Riptide, a young chestnut colt with a serious infection in his leg. “Removing Riptide and taking him to the NCSU veterinary hospital was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she remembers.
Pucket’s role as herd manager is as gratifying as it is unpredictable. “Horses don’t care about best-laid plans,” she says, laughing. This morning, she repaired a fence. Yesterday, she ran a successful fundraiser, pulled two endangered horses off the beach, and gave an outreach presentation to 150 kids at a history museum in Elizabeth City. Outreach is important: “We have these incredible resources right here on our island,” Pucket says.
Through several local tour companies, well-trained guides teach visitors how to view the herd respectfully, while also discussing the area’s history and ecology. Bob’s Wild Horse Tours, Corolla Wild Horse Tours, and Corolla Outback Adventures are three such operators that offer two-hour guided adventures through the four-wheel drive area in open-air, safari-style trucks.
“People want to do the right thing and interact well with the horses,” says Pete Cole, manager of Corolla Wild Horse Tours. Much of Cole’s job is public relations: Locals call him if they have any concerns about what they see on the tours. He strives to always keep these essential lines of communication open. Though it was the area’s beauty and open spaces that drew him to the job, his love of the people and the animals is what keeps him here.
Looking to the future, Cole is cautiously optimistic about the horses’ long-term sustainability. “I hope they can be there as long as possible,” he says. The herd has been squeezed up to the last 7 miles of Outer Banks, “and that’s plenty, but we need to be mindful of their presence. The horses are gentle and sweet and soft-mannered, but they need to stay wild to stay safe.”
According to Cole, the health of the herd can be safeguarded through public education and by maintaining extensive training for touring companies. His hope is that all of Corolla’s guests can be informed about the history, the terrain, and the appropriate way to view and support the wild horses.
“Because an astonishing 50,000 people per week visit Currituck in the summer, every guest must do their part to preserve and protect the horses,” he says. “This means staying at least 50 feet away from them at all times, never offering food to them, and remembering that distance from humans is ultimately what will keep them safe.”
If Pucket could make a final plea to visitors, it’s this: “Please don’t take the horses’ existence in Corolla for granted. Follow the rules so they will continue to thrive on the northern beaches for many more generations.”
She adds that it’s “absolutely possible to live in harmony with them; to watch them and love them and appreciate everything about them without getting close, and certainly without feeding them.” Just like every individual horse is critically important to the genetic health of the herd, every single person who sets foot on the beach is critically important to their survival.
The wild horses of Corolla are survivors, living remnants of history, legend, and war; they are resilient treasures from another age and a distant shore. They have adapted beautifully to their island home, but they require the delicate care and dedication of their protectors, along with the respect of every visitor they receive. You can see them for yourself if you head to the northern tip of the Outer Banks and leave the paved roads behind. If you’re lucky, you might just glimpse a sorrel mare streaking through the surf before she disappears between the dunes.